SAUSALITO, CA — The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito praised the commitment made Friday by President Barack Obama and Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto to intensify the efforts of both countries to protect the critically endangered vaquita porpoise.
Dr. Frances Gulland, The Marine Mammal Center’s senior scientist and a member of the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, said “the demand for illegal totoaba fish bladders is driving the vaquita’s demise.”
The tiny vaquita porpoise is found only in the shallow waters of the northern Gulf of California, Mexico. It is the most endangered of the 128 marine mammals alive in the world today. The rapid fall of the population is a direct result of rampant illegal trade in an endangered fish species, the totoaba, which is caught in gillnets that entangle vaquitas, according to The Marine Mammal Center.
In March, Gulland performed necropsies on three dead vaquitas that were discovered in the northern Gulf of California, determining their death as “trauma, entanglement.”
“By strengthening bilateral cooperation, Mexico and the United States are pledging their commitment to save the world’s most endangered marine mammal,” Gulland said. “Enforcing a permanent ban on gillnets, developing alternative fishing gear, and increasing awareness among potential sellers and buyers of totoaba bladders will give the vaquita the greatest chance of survival.”
The Comité Internacional para la Recuperación de la Vaquita (International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita), an international team of scientists established by the government of Mexico and known by its Spanish acronym CIRVA, estimated only 60 vaquitas remaining. This represents a decline of more than 92 percent since 1997.
The totoaba is in high demand for its swim bladder, a gas-filled internal organ that allows the fish to ascend and descend by controlling its buoyancy. The swim bladder is highly prized as a traditional health food in China and is subject to skyrocketing demand. A single swim bladder can be sold on the black market for thousands of dollars. They are dried and smuggled out of Mexico to China, often through the United States.
According to the White House, both presidents committed to intensify bilateral cooperation to protect the critically endangered vaquita marina porpoise, including through the following actions:
- Mexico will make permanent a ban on the use of gillnets in all fisheries throughout the range of the vaquita in the upper Gulf of California;
- Both countries will increase cooperation and enforcement efforts to immediately halt the illegal fishing for and illegal trade in totoaba swim bladders;
- Both countries will redouble efforts, in collaboration with international experts, to develop alternative fishing gear to gillnets that does not result in the entanglement of vaquita and establish “vaquita-safe” fisheries; and
- Both countries will establish and implement a long-term program to remove and permanently dispose of illegal and derelict fishing gear from vaquita habitat in the upper Gulf of California.
From Mill Valley Patch