Vanishing Vaquita Part 2: A Porpoises Battle with the Wall of Death

The vaquita is nearing extinction.

With less than 100 still alive, the vaquita needs our attention now more than ever. Many estimates are lower than 60 or even 50.

We ask of you, right now, to learn about the species and read why it is rapidly running out before it is too late to act.

To save a species, you must be aware and to be informed.

If you haven’t heard about the vaquita yet, read this

Read Vanishing Vaquita Part 1: the Story of the World’s Rarest Mammal

What makes this particular endangered species’ conservation efforts so difficult are the complexities surrounding this issue.

Our goal here, with this article, is to present the situation to you in a way that will inspire and educate you on what is a dire, global issue.

It is our right, and obligation, to be informed on what’s going on with this (and every) conservation challenge.

3 Ways to Ensure your Shrimp is Vaquita Friendly

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History of Vaquita Conservation in Mexico

The vaquita population first suffered when commercial fisheries operations scaled-up and were modernized in the 1940’s.

This commercial fishing was the catalyst of the vaquita decline, since more fishing meant more vaquita deaths.  

The vaquita was red listed as Vulnerable in 1978, Endangered in 1990, and Critically Endangered in 1996.

The Mexican government finally took action, designating a gill-net-free “biosphere reserve” in the area where the Colorado River once flowed into the Gulf.

Vaquita Map 700px

A biosphere reserve is a coastal ecosystem that promotes solutions for the conservation of the biodiversity (in this case, the vaquita) within the reserve.

This way the vaquita population would have a protected haven where it could reproduce and flourish, getting the numbers back up.

Sounds great, right?

It didn’t work out.

Population continued to drop as illegal fishing continued within the reserve.

As this effort proved ineffective, in 1996 CIRVA the Internaternational Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita, was created.

CIRVA is a team of scientists from Europe, Mexico, U.S., and Canada dedicated to bringing this species back from the edge of extinction.

Their primary goal was to develop a recovery plan based on the best scientific evidence.

This committee observed and analyzed risk factors and concluded that vaquita bycatch from the use of gillnets was the single most immediate threat to their survival.

So in order to save this precious porpoise, gillnetting had to end in vaquita populated areas.

With this knowledge, The Vaquita Refuge Program was declared in 2005.

The Refuge Program included a ban on gillnetting and trawling in certain areas with relatively high densities of vaquitas.

With little enforcement, the ban was widely ignored.

In 2008 the Mexican Government created PACE Vaquita (Species Conservation Action Plan for Vaquita), a protection and recovery effort which includes a program to encourage fishermen to switch to fishing gear that does not threaten vaquitas.

This action plan was the first to aim at eliminating vaquita by-catch, rather than just reduce it.

However, getting fishermen to change their ways was extremely difficult and a very slow process.

In April 2015, a large step was taken by the Mexican President towards vaquita conservation as he announced a 2-year ban on all commercial fishing in the refuge area.

This effort has been monitored by Navy enforcement within the area.

Various conservation efforts have been implemented over the past couple of decades for the vaquita because of the prevalent use of gillnets in the commercial fishing industry in Mexico.  


Why Gillnets are So Attractive to Fishermen: the “Wall of Death”

You might be asking yourself, if there was a ban on gillnets, the vaquita’s #1 threat, why is the population still declining?

It’s incredibly difficult for fishermen to abandon the use of gillnets.

Gillnets are extremely efficient.

A gillnet is a large net wall that hangs vertically in the water. The net is made of transparent monofilament line, so fish and other animals are unable to see it while swimming before it.

The mesh size or net holes are designed to be large enough for the head of the fish to pass through it, but not its body. Because of this, when fish swim into the net they are entangled by their gills.

Gillnets can stretch for one to two miles and they are typically 10-50 ft high.

Since gillnets are so large and effective at catching marine life, they catch fish species that fishermen aren’t intending to catch. This is called by-catch.

This is where the poor vaquita comes in.

When large ocean animals, such as the vaquita, swim into gillnets they may become entangled around their head, mouths or limbs.

Because the net is made out of very strong material, it is nearly impossible for the animals to escape.

The more the animal squirms to get free, the more entangled it becomes in the thin and sharp net line.

Vaquitas become stuck and fully engulfed in the netting until they drown.

This is where the gillnet gets its appropriate nickname, The Wall of Death.

Now, let’s take a step back.

In 2013, the Mexican government ordered a three-year, gradual substitution of drift gillnets for small trawls in attempt to eliminate use of gillnets.

But gillnetting is such a lucrative way of fishing, that small trawls have not been an easy transition.

Small trawls are difficult to use and even harder to learn.

Fishermen can be out in the water all day in the scorching sun and not get a single catch, while with gillnets they can drop the net in the water, come back in two days with a bountiful catch.

It’s important to clarify that fishermen we are talking about are regular people, just like you and me.

They are not large commercial fishing corporations run out of the Unites States or Canada or Europe. They are only trying to do their jobs to make a living in order to support their families.

They are transitioning from using a fishing method with a 30 meter area versus 2 meters with small trawls. The regression in technology is economically devastating to the lives of the fisherman.

Trawlers are also very difficult to use, unlike gillnetting where any level fisherman can quickly learn to handle.

Gillnetting is significantly more lucrative and allows fishermen to provide for their families.

With a dire need to end the use of gillnetting and reduce vaquita bycatch to zero, PACE Vaquita created a program to ensure that fishermen weren’t using gillnets.

PACE Vaquita; Comprehensive Protection and Recovery Effort  

With the introduction of PACE Vaquita, fishermen are encouraged to switch to fishing gear that does not threaten vaquitas.

PACE Vaquita did this in three different ways;

  • Buy-Out: fishermen are compensated to convert to other economic activities/occupations other than fishing.
  • Switch-Out: fishermen are compensated to (a) use alternative fishing gear such as small trawls, (b) switch to other fisheries that don’t use gillnetting; grouper fishery or giant squid fishery, or (c) work in mariculture (farming of marine organisms) or aquaculture (farming of both fresh-water and marine organisms). 
  • Rent-Out: compensated fishermen for not fishing within the Vaquita Refuge.

Other strategies included; encouraging development of alternative ways of fishing and assisting fishermen who have bought out and need a new means of business.

Although PACE Vaquita alongside the Mexican government made important shifts to make the ban on gillnetting sustainable and economical, illegal use of gillnets is still a significant issue in the Gulf of California.

Why the Ban isn’t Working

Even though various programs were implemented to completely eliminate gillnetting, they weren’t fully efficient because there was no pre-existing way to give compensation directly to fishermen who did wish to “Buy-Out” of the fishing industry and pursue an alternative livelihood (Rojas-Bracho, Reeves).

So though fishermen were incentivized with money to leave fishing behind, paying them to do so hadn’t fully been figured out yet.

Because of this, before any of these programs could move forward, the government had to design and implement new programs under which materials could be purchased, workers could be hired, and various start-up costs for new business could be met (Rojas-Bracho, Reeves).

These technical difficulties caused major delays in the Comprehensive Protection and Recovery Effort.

Thankfully the 2-year ban on gillnetting has bought time for the Mexican government to search for alternative sources of income as well as sustainable fishing gear.

Another aspect that doesn’t contribute to vaquita conservation efforts is fishermen’s general sentiments towards the vaquita.

Not only does the vaquita provide zero economic gain for Mexico, it actually is hurting the country’s economy, as the fishing industry is the second largest source of income for workers in Mexico.

These conservation complexities have only made the country’s sentiments towards the vaquita one of apathy and irritation.

Ivory of the Sea; The Chinese Demand for Totoaba


Image by Choo Yut Shing

Even with gillnetting banned in the Vaquita distribution area people continue fishing illegally due prominently to an irresistible incentive from the Chinese black market.

As introduced in the Vanishing Vaquita Part 1, fish maw is a highly sought after soup made from the fish bladder of the endangered totoaba.

Some Asian cultures believe it has medicinal benefits and can increase fertility.

The totoaba is endemic to the Gulf of California in Mexico, along with our friend the vaquita. So it is by no surprise that the surge in totoaba demand has a direct and deadly effect on the vaquita population.

As a finfish, totoaba are most easily caught with gillnets.

Fishermen use gillnets to illegally catch and distribute the gall bladders to China.

If you compare prices, the gall bladder of the totoaba is even more lucrative than cocaine, with only a slap on the wrist punishment if caught.

A fishermen can receive up to $10,000 dollars for a single fish bladder. Compare that to the $450 dollars a month given by the government as an incentive to stay away from gillnets.

Between 2012 and 2014 vaquita’s lost half of their population. Many think this is attributed to the 2011 price of totoaba spike in China.

With Chinese economic growth increasing, so was the demand for totoaba fish bladder.

The risks of catching this endangered species are incomparable to the rewards.

Fishermen caught for catching/selling gall bladders can get away with fines between $500 and $250,000 (depending on the amount of bladders) a fraction the value of a single bladder.

The rapid decline of the vaquita along with many other endangered species comes down to the wildlife trafficking crisis.

The Deadly, Black Market;

Wildlife trafficking was once a crime of opportunity committed by individuals or small groups, but today is executed by international criminal cartels that are well structured, highly organized, and capable of illegally moving large commercial volumes of wildlife products.

What was once a minor, regional issue has become a global crisis, threatening the survival of various endangered species.

International trade in exotic animal parts includes rhino horn, elephant tusks, seahorses, bear gall bladders and of course swim bladders from the endangered totoaba.

Africa’s elephants are being slaughtered for ivory at rates not seen in decades. This is occurring across all regions in Africa.  

Over the past five years, the poaching of rhinos for their horns made of ivory has surged upward. Tragically, this current poaching epidemic threatens to reverse fifty years of recovery for African rhinos.

As mentioned earlier, China’s growing economy has spurred high demands for “exotic” cuisine, and many of the endangered animals end up as ingredients on the plates of China’s elite upper class.

The body parts of these innocent animals have become unfortunate status symbols for new economic elites.

Though the primary markets are in China, the U.S. is a transit country for illegal wildlife trade and major consumer. We are apart of the problem, we must be apart of the solution.

With the vaquita population continuing to dwindle it is imperative now more than ever for all of us to be knowledgeable on the issues leading to the species’ decline.

There’s not one thing we can do individually because it is such a complex issue, but everyone has the right and obligation to be informed on what’s going on with this conservation challenge.

It all starts with awareness, leading to action, resulting in the advancement of this one, precious planet.

What are your thoughts on the plight of the vaquita? Questions? Comment below!

Share with us what you are thinking so we can continue to improve our education of the vaquita.

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