Mexican officials say poacher arrests have ‘dismantled’ a cartel that threatens the vaquita porpoise

By Kendal Blust
Published: Wednesday, January 4, 2023 - 2:43pm

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vaquita refuge
Kendal Blust/KJZZ
Sunrises over the Sea of Cortez outside the little town of San Felipe, Baja California.

Mexican officials say they have made progress in protecting the critically endangered vaquita marina porpoise by arresting poachers in the uppermost part of the Gulf of California.

Fishing for another endangered species — a large fish called the totoaba — has been illegal in Mexico for decades. But authorities have struggled to enforce that ban.

The totoaba’s swim bladder is trafficked from the Upper Gulf of California to the United States and China, where it is valuable for alleged medicinal properties.

Ongoing totoaba poaching is also considered the leading factor in the rapid decline of the vaquita marina porpoise because the nets used to catch the large fish can also entangle and drown the small vaquita. There are only an estimated 10 vaquita left.

But Marina Secretary Jose Rafael Ojeda said this week that there has been progress in combating totoaba trafficking, saying that the arrests of seven poachers has dismantled what he calls the "totoaba cartel."

Mexico has faced increasing pressure to crack down on illegal fishing in the vaquita’s habitat, and could face international sanctions if it does not submit a plan to do so by next month.

vaquita marina
Barbara Taylor/Conanp/Sea Shepherd/Museo de la Ballena
One of six vaquita marina porpoises sighted by scientists and conservationists in Mexico's Sea of Cortez in late August and early September 2019.

CITES sanctions

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, known as CITES, trade convention has given Mexico until the end of February to present a plan addressing threats to the species — or face trade restrictions.

"The suspension of trade is not disproportionate to the extinction of a species," said DJ Shubert with Animal Welfare Institute during a CITES committee meeting in Panama City. "The reality is that the vaquita may not survive until (the next meeting). This smallest of the world’s cetaceans cannot risk another year of failed promises.”

Shubert says Mexico has repeatedly failed to meet its commitments to address threats to the vaquita and that environmental groups want trade suspensions to be implemented immediately.

“With the vaquita so close to extinction, why are we giving Mexico yet another chance to make promises? When is enough enough?" he asked the committee. "The vaquita cannot afford any further delay by this Committee. Therefore, we strongly urge the Committee to consider an immediate suspension of trade against Mexico until it prepares the recommended compliance action plan, that plan is deemed sufficient, is fully implemented, and is demonstrating positive results.”

Mexican leaders pushed back against the measures proposed by CITES, and asked that the United States and China be involved in drafting the new plan. Those countries are transit and destination locations, respectively, for the totoaba fish.

Fronteras Sonora Environment