Only 12 vaquita porpoises remain, watchdog group reports

The primary cause of death for the vaquita is becoming entangled in gillnets used to illegally catch totoaba.

The International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita reported in 2017 that there were just 30 vaquita left in the Upper Gulf of California, the species’ only known habitat. The primary cause of death for this small porpoise (Phocoena sinus) is becoming entangled in gillnets used to catch totoaba, a fish whose swim bladders are in high demand and are trafficked illegally, especially to China. Mongabay contacted Andrea Crosta of the international wildlife trade watchdog group Elephant Action League just before his return to Mexico to hear what he found during his last visit in February 2018. Crosta answered Mongabay’s questions via email.


Mongabay: We’ve been tracking the decline of vaquitas for years and have heard that the “30 left” number reported in 2017 might be a high estimate, what did you learn from your recent trip about their numbers?

Andrea Crosta: My current sources confirmed to me that we are now talking about a dozen vaquitas left in the Sea of Cortez. The scientists are using sonic buoys to count them, through echolocation, and numbers are now really low.

Mongabay: Who you were sailing with to gather this information?

Andrea Crosta: This information comes from multiple sources, not another organization. Within our field investigation, my team and I were also on board a vessel of Sea Shepherd for a couple of days, and they heard similar numbers.

Andrea Crosta (left) aboard Sea Shepherd vessel, February 2018. Photo courtesy of Elephant Action League.

Mongabay: Is there any will building locally to curb the illegal totoaba fishery that is devastating vaquitas?

Andrea Crosta: Not really, certainly not locally in San Felipe and Santa Clara, the two main fisherman villages from which the illegal fishermen come. I think they are actually waiting for the vaquita to go extinct so they can fish more and with fewer restrictions. The central government of Mexico recently stepped up efforts to curb the use of gillnets in the area where the vaquita lives, but with very poor results, in my opinion. I personally saw dozens of illegal fishing vessels (pangas) going out to sea in the middle of the day, even in areas patrolled by the Mexican navy. During the night it is even worse.

Panga heading for launch during totoaba fishing season, February 2018. Photo courtesy of Elephant Action League.

Mongabay: What do we know about who’s still buying and trafficking the totoaba bladders illegally, and where are their body parts headed?

Andrea Crosta: According to first-hand information coming from our undercover teams in Mexico and China, the market for the totoaba’s swim bladder (maw) is still strong, and Chinese traders, including those living in Mexico, are still buying a lot of maw from the Mexican totoaba cartels and smuggling it into China through various means. Hong Kong seems to be an important smuggling hub, while most of the totoaba maw goes to southern China, to the cities of Shantou and Nan’aoj, for example.

Mongabay: After the failed Mexican government initiative last year (VaquitaCPR) to capture and protect vaquitas was ended following the death of a breeding age female in their custody, what has that group or the government been doing?

Mexican government patrol boat. Photo courtesy of Elephant Action League.

Andrea Crosta: I don’t know if there are plans to resume the capture of the last vaquitas, maybe using a different methodology. But whatever they decide, I personally don’t think that a viable number vaquitas will survive the next high season of illegal totoaba fishing, which is beginning now.

Mongabay: You’re headed back there soon, do you have hope for this species?

Andrea Crosta: I am there very often. We are the only organization, together with Sea Shepherd, that has a constant presence in Baja California at the moment, to really monitor what’s going on. At the same time, we are active also in China to better understand how the illegal supply chain works, and who are the players there.

I don’t know about hope. I don’t want to sound too pessimistic, but this whole thing has become personal. Even if they kill all the vaquitas, we owe it to them to tell their full story, the truth, and we want to take down those responsible, who are not the fishermen, by the way.

Andrea Crosta is the director of Elephant Action League and appeared on Mongabay’s podcast, the Mongabay Newscast, in 2016, listen to that conversation here.

Banner image: An illustration of the vaquita created by Greenpeace Mexico.