Vaquita’s Fate Hinges on End to Illegal Fishing

Fewer than 10 vaquita porpoises remain in Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California. Yet, calves were observed during a 2021 survey, and new evidence, published in Science, indicates that the vaquita’s historical rarity reduces inbreeding risk and the species “can recover if bycatch mortality is immediately halted.”

Whether this will occur is very much in doubt. Mexico claims it has dramatically reduced the number of illegal fishing vessels in the “zero tolerance area” at the heart of vaquita habitat. Observers tell a different story—of rampant illegal fishing in and around the area (mostly for shrimp and totoaba) and boats laden with illegal gillnets entering the Upper Gulf without mandated government inspection and vessel monitoring systems. 

And yet, in early March, the Standing Committee for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) not only failed to sanction Mexico for its failures but also agreed to permit trade in meat from captive-bred totoaba—an alarming decision given its potential to provide cover for the trafficking of wild-caught totoaba.

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