Image: Flip Nicklin/Getty Images

​The Race to Save the Vaquita, the World’s Most Endangered Marine Mammal

There are fewer than 100 vaquitas left, and it's all due to the illegal poaching of a fish that lives in the same waters.

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Aug 14 2015, 5:30pm

Image: Flip Nicklin/Getty Images

This is the vaquita. A porpoise species up to five feet in length, it's characterised by its small size, pale grey colour, and the dark rings around its eyes and mouth that make it look as if it's smudged its make-up in its native waters of the Gulf of California.

It's a cutie. It's also the most endangered marine mammal in the world.

Thanks largely to illegal human activity, there are fewer than 100 vaquitas left. Some estimates put the number closer to 50. Experts forecast that with things as they are, the vaquita could die out in just a few years—and it'll all be down to human causes.

"I really can't express how critical it is," said Clare Perry, leader of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) oceans campaign. "We're really at last chance saloon, I'm afraid."

The vaquita is endemic to Mexico's Gulf of California; you can't find it anywhere else. Unfortunately for the vaquita, it's not the only threatened fish in the sea, and while no one goes out to kill the few remaining vaquitas, they've found themselves embroiled in the tragedy of another critically endangered endemic species: the totoaba.

Totoaba macdonaldi is a large fish that has seen its population decrease for decades. It's been illegal to fish the totoaba since 1975, but there's a strong incentive for people to continue poaching it: the dried swim bladder of a single totoaba can fetch over $10,000 on the black markets in Hong Kong and mainland China.

Totoaba swim bladder on sale in Guangzhou. Image: EIA

The vaquita has essentially found itself an innocent bystander in this illegal fishing trade, which spans from the north of Mexico to the south of China and has recently seen an increase in demand.

Totoaba swim bladder is weird-looking stuff. In fish, the swim bladder contains gas and helps control buoyancy. In China, it can be considered a delicacy and is believed to have medicinal properties, but Gloria Chang, manager of the Greenpeace East Asia office, said one of its main attractions was simply its high price.

"It's not a normal product which people can consume in their daily or normal life," she explained, but rather "a product for speculation, investment."

And of course, the more endangered the totoaba gets, the more rare its swim bladder will become, and the higher price some people will be willing to pay.

Perry said that more work needed to be done to understand the market, but that the fish bladder, also known as fish maw, seemed to be sold as more of a day-to-day product than ivory or rhino horn, which are bought as status symbols.

The problem is that the nets used to catch the totoaba in Mexico—sweeping walls of "gillnets" that are designed to trap fish in their mesh—are also perfect for a vaquita to get tangled in. The vaquita needs to come to the surface to breathe, and once it's caught in a net, it's not long before it will drown.

A photograph found in a fisherman's home. Image: Alejandro Rivas/Greenpeace

Gillnets have been completely banned in a much larger area of the gulf since April; local fishermen are not allowed to use them to fish commercially for shrimp and finfish any more than poachers can purposely target the totoaba.

But earlier this month, Greenpeace reported that its activists had discovered ten gillnets around San Felipe, a fishing town to the north of the gulf. These were subsequently removed by government environmental officials. "The fishermen go out during the night mostly; they go with small boats, five or six people, to fish the totoaba," said Silvia Diaz, who leads the Greenpeace oceans campaign in Mexico. "They can even fish 100 totoaba in one night."

According to Diaz, the situation is exacerbated by the involvement of gangs or cartels in the trade. "They see that it's more lucrative than cocaine, and also the legal risk is too low, because it's not a 'hard' crime here in Mexico," she said.

Rafael Pacchiano Alamàn, undersecretary for environmental protection at SEMARNAT, Mexico's Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, said that while it was difficult to confirm a connection, "What we have found is that the illegal fishermen go out fishing with machine guns and heavily armoured."

"It's very likely the cartels are participating in the illegal fishing, because the prices that the Asian markets are paying are so high that obviously would be very attractive for this kind of business," he said.

Stephen Dudley of Insight Crime, an organisation that analyses organised crime in the Americas, said he also couldn't corroborate any cartel connection with the totoaba trade but that it appeared to be an organised crime activity. "In order to fish and distribute an illegal item to Asia, there has to be a strong OC [organized crime] network," he pointed out.

It's too much for environmental inspectors to take on: In April, Mexican President Enrico Peña Nieto visited Baja California village San Felipe to push protective measures for the vaquita, including instructing the Navy to help enforce the gillnet ban with the help of two new high-speed boats.

Alamàn was unable to provide figures on how many arrests had been made since, but the IUCN's specialist cetacean group reported that two arrests were made within days of the president's announcement. He said his office also hoped to equip Naval teams with surveillance drones.

Gillnet fishing. Image: Chris Johnson/Greenpeace

As part of the conservation strategy, the Mexican government has also agreed to a compensation program with local fishermen who are not able to fish for a living while the gillnet ban is in place, and to work with them on new, sustainable fishing methods that are not damaging to the vaquita.

As evidence that the stepped-up security was working, Alamàn said that at one point, some fishermen who were unknown to the local fishing community requested to be included in the compensation plan. It turned out, he said, that they had been illegally fishing the totoaba but now found they couldn't. "Obviously we did not include them in the compensation program," he said.

According to Alamàn, the fishermen were overall supportive of efforts to save the vaquita. "They are very aware of the problem and they would like to be part of the solution," he said.

Diaz was less convinced by the effectiveness of current efforts to stop the gillnet fishing, and held up the nets Greenpeace had uncovered as evidence of insufficient resources dedicated to the task of enforcing the ban across such a large area.

"Basically the problem is that the money is a lot, the legal risk is too low, and the enforcement and control from the Mexican authorities is close to zero right now," she said of the main problems driving the illegal fishing.

She said that Greenpeace was also trying to help the local fishing communities come up with sustainable solutions, and was planning to work with the fishermen's boats to track down more gillnets in the restricted area. While they remain, they're liable to snag more totoaba—and more of the rapidly dwindling vaquitas.

"Greenpeace Mexico is going to check and double check that the enforcement is well done, that the fishermen have sustainable alternatives, and that they can live with the money that the Mexican government is giving to them," she said. Greenpeace is one of several activist groups campaigning to protect the vaquita.

A vaquita photographed in 2008. It's very hard to see a vaquita. Image: Chris Johnson/Greenpeace

But while the totoaba continues to be such a lucrative catch, it seems unlikely that poachers will be easily deterred. Both Mexican authorities and nonprofit organisations are pushing for collaboration from the US, Hong Kong, and China, to clamp down on the smuggling of the totoaba swim bladder.

"It seems that mostly the bladders are smuggled from Mexico via the US, and then mostly to Hong Kong, and from Hong Kong make their way to mainland China," explained Perry.

She thinks that it will take action on the side of the Asian markets and trade routes to make a significant difference.

"If you can show the Mexicans that the markets have dried up and it's too dangerous then it will stop," she said. "They can survive a few busts, because there's enough going."

The vaquita's story should resonate with the Chinese, even if it finds itself in waters on the other side of the world. It was less than ten years ago that the baiji, or Yangtze River dolphin, was declared extinct after none could be found on a 2006 expedition. A major cause of its decline was entanglement in fishing equipment and illegal electric fishing, along with pollution and habitat destruction.

Researchers worry that the vaquita will soon become the second marine mammal whose extinction will be directly linked to human causes.

"I'm fairly sure that they [China] won't want to be indirectly responsible for the second extinction—but that is the way it's going," said Perry.

Earlier this year, the EIA conducted a survey of markets in Guangzhou and Hong Kong and found examples of totoaba swim bladders on sale in both. Of markets in Guangzhou, they wrote that, "Generally, traders were aware that totoaba sales are illegal, knew the fish are only found in Mexico and claimed that smuggling the contraband between Hong Kong and mainland China is easy with customs agencies not routinely inspecting fish maw consignments."

Around the same time, Greenpeace East Asia also investigated the Hong Kong market. After going undercover as potential buyers, they reported at least 13 shops as potential sellers of the dried bladder, seven of which showed samples that were on sale for up to 500,000 Hong Kong dollars ($64,500).

The EIA reported that its survey found totoaba bladder prices had in fact dropped recently—presumably due to the recent heavy illegal fishing activity causing a surge in supply. It said there was evidence that some traders were now stockpiling the product in the hopes of getting a higher price in the future. "Because with or without vaquitas, the totoaba won't sustain this level of fishing, I don't think," said Perry.

Greenpeace's Chang suggested that the popularity of the totoaba bladder on the Chinese market could also be partly fuelled by the recent crackdown on shark fin. She said that now officials are paying more attention to shark fin, buyers and sellers are looking for alternatives—and as a dried seafood product of high value, fish maw fits the bill.

A totoaba maw being sold for approx. $12,000 at a Hong Kong market. Image: EIA

Since Greenpeace's undercover survey, the organisation's vaquita campaign had gained a lot of public supporters; an online petition asking Hong Kong authorities to stop the illegal trade has gained tens of thousands of signatures. Chang said that the Hong Kong government was also doing inspections of the markets, and she hoped to see some legal action taken against traders or smugglers soon.

"I think that would help here to give a strong signal to the whole industry that the government is not going to leave the traders alone; the government is doing their part here to clampdown the chain," she said. She wants to see more resources and "political teeth" in clamping down on smuggling through Hong Kong's famous port. "We are proud of being a free trading port for centuries, but we don't want to be taken advantage of by these smugglers to turn it into a smuggling hub—to turn it into a hub that's driving species to extinction," she said.

In an emailed statement, the Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department (C&ED) said that it was the primary agency for suppressing smuggling. "Frontline officers of C&ED will identify suspicious cross-boundary conveyance, passengers, cargoes and parcels for inspection with constant vigilance and maintain close contact with the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, Mainland and overseas counterparts for timely intelligence exchange and enforcement cooperation regarding the smuggling of endangered species," it wrote.

As well as putting more pressure on customs agencies, Perry emphasized the need to raise awareness of the risk posed to both the totoaba and vaquita among consumers in mainland China and with the Chinese government.

In June, China and the US held talks to cooperate on the problem of illegal wildlife trafficking, in which the totoaba was mentioned.

Perry suggested that a high-profile campaign in China like those run by WildAid with celebrities like Jackie Chan could help cut down consumption of totoaba bladders.

"The vaquita will be extinct, possibly by 2018, if fishery bycatch is not eliminated immediately."

The problem is time. The International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA), a group comprising researchers, members of NGOs, and Mexican government representatives, released a report last year that put the best estimate of the vaquita population at 97, "of which fewer than 25 are likely to be reproductively mature females."

As mammals, vaquitas have a long gestational period and only give birth about once every two years, which impacts how quickly the population can recover.

The CIRVA report emphasized that, with the current population decline of 18.5 percent per year, "The vaquita will be extinct, possibly by 2018, if fishery bycatch is not eliminated immediately."

Meanwhile, Greenpeace says the number could already be as low as 57. It's hard to be exact, because owing to the vaquita's rarity and shyness of humans, it's difficult to actually see one. Current estimates are based on research done with hydrophones—devices that pick up sound underwater.

As part of the Mexican government's efforts, Alamàn said they were working with scientists to do a new population survey in September, admitting that, "To be completely honest with you, we still have no precise idea of how many vaquitas are left." These figures will be important to monitor if conservation methods are working.

Everyone I spoke to agreed that saving the vaquita was at a critical juncture.

"We can't let the second marine mammal disappear because of illegal human activities; it will be really painful," said Diaz. "And it will be a shame for the Mexican government because they knew it for 10 or 20 years, for a lot of years, that the vaquita was endangered." CIRVA first met in 1997 to create a recovery plan for the vaquita.

Alamàn insisted that the current government was doing "whatever it takes" where previous administrations hadn't.

He said that Mexico had a duty to protect all of the species that live there, but that the vaquita was particularly important because it was endemic. "It doesn't exist anywhere else," he said. "It's a Mexican species, and we have the obligation for conserving our species and our natural patrimony."

Hell or Salt Water is a series on Motherboard about exploring and preserving our oceans. Follow along here.