Vaquitas and Totoabas

Vaquitas and Totoabas - Photo by Tom JeffersonIdentified only 50 years ago, the critically endangered vaquita is endemic to Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California. Reaching a maximum length of about four feet, the porpoise is gray, with dark stripes running from its flippers to the middle of its lower lip. As recently as 20 years ago, there were approximately 600 vaquitas swimming in the Gulf. As of late 2015, 60 vaquitas were reported, and the numbers are believed to have fallen even further since then. At least three vaquita were found dead in the spring of 2016; all bore evidence of scarring due to entanglement in nets. The situation is dire.

The primary threat facing this shy, small animal is entanglement in fishing gear, particularly gillnets set to catch shrimp, sharks, and other finfish. There has been a recent resurgence in illegal gillnet fishing for critically endangered totoaba, a large schooling marine fish in the drum or croaker family that is also found only in the Gulf of California. Totoaba can grow up to six feet in length and weigh 220 lbs. Although totoaba fishing has been banned in Mexico since 1975, a black market exists for their swim bladders, which are used to make soup and unproven traditional medicine treatments. With a single bladder fetching up to US$14,000, some fishers illegally catch totoaba and traffic them to China and other Asian countries.

After years of international pressure, in April 2015, Mexico announced a two-year ban on most gillnets in the northern Gulf of California, and promised to increase enforcement action against the growing illegal totoaba fishery. Unfortunately, a key exemption from the ban allowed fishers to continue to target corvina (a type of croaker fish) using gillnets. While these nets tend not to result in bycatch of vaquitas, the exception provided illegal fishers with access to the totoaba fishing waters. This illegal fishing often occurs at night. In order to avoid the few enforcement authorities that are policing the waters, illegal fishers often dump or abandon their nets, resulting in “ghost nets” that catch and kill all sorts of marine life.

Mexico has undertaken efforts to compensate fishers for the loss of income from the fishing ban, but these efforts have largely failed due to corruption and involvement of the Mexican drug cartels. Known totoaba traffickers have been among those receiving compensation. Additionally, while Mexico has attempted to increase on-water enforcement, the effort has been too small given the enormous scale of the illegal fishery.

In July 2016, the United States and Mexico publically renewed their commitment to save the vaquita, with Mexico stating a commitment to permanently ban all gillnets in all fisheries throughout the vaquita’s entire range. AWI and partner organizations issued a statement in response to this commitment, welcoming the ban of all gillnet fisheries, as well as promises to stop night fishing and police fish landing sites. Unfortunately, it a commitment is not action, and it is possible that this pledge to ban all gillnets in the Upper Gulf of California won’t be upheld.

To truly save the vaquita, however, the Mexican government must go beyond policy pronouncements and commit financing, staff, and political will from the highest level to ensure that a complete gillnet ban is fully and diligently enforced, both on the water and on land. AWI is working through CITES, the IWC, the UN World Heritage Commission, and other forums to help protect the vaquita.


Vaquita/Totoaba Timeline


Vaquita Count




  • Mexico closed totoaba fishery via a total ban
  • Mexico listed the totoaba as “at risk” under local regulations



  • Biosphere Reserve of the Upper Gulf of California and Delta of the Colorado River (Islas del Golfo de California) established to protect vaquita and totoaba from gillnets






  • Comité Internacional para la Recuperación de la Vaquita (“CIRVA,” or the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita established by Mexico’s Secretariat of Environment, Natural Resources and Fisheries to develop a recovery plan based on the best scientific evidence



  • Gillnet Ban in Biosphere Reserve



  • Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California inscribed on World Heritage List








  • Mexico implements two-year gillnet ban



  • United States and Mexico publically renew commitment to save the vaquita and totoaba, with Mexico stating a commitment to permanently ban all gillnets

The above timeline shows the alarming decline in the vaquita population, despite Mexican and international efforts. In 2014, CIRVA estimated the vaquita population was dropping at a rate of 18.5 percent per year. The current rate of decline is much higher.