US Sued Over Vanishing Vaquita, the World’s Smallest Porpoise

The body of a dead animal believed to be a vaquita, a critically endangered species of porpoise, floats in the ocean after being found in an illegal totoaba net recovered on March 12, 2019, by Sea Shepherd in the Gulf of California off of Mexico. (Credit: Sea Shepherd)

WASHINGTON (CN) — In a bid to protect an ever-dwindling species of porpoise, conservation groups blame the Trump administration in a federal complaint for giving Mexico a pass on reckless fishing practices.

“Vaquita face a single threat: they become entangled and drown in fishing gear, including in gear set illegally to catch totoaba, a giant, endangered fish,” according to the complaint led in Washington by the Center for Biological Diversity.

Native to the Gulf of California in Mexico, the totoaba are prized for their large swim bladders, meant to ensure buoyancy in the water, which fetch upwards of $46,00 per kilogram on the black market. 

The bladders, referred to as “maw,” are popular in China and believed to hold medicinal properties, including curing arthritis, improving skin and boosting fertility.

Though Mexico banned totoaba fishing in 1975 as the species’ population declined, the Center for Biological Diversity says that Mexico’s failure to enforce said ban has led the vaquita’s population to plummet.

“The issue is that the vaquita is essentially a very similar size as the totoaba, so it gets captured in the nets that are used in the illegal fishery,” explained Andrew Rypel, who is the Peter B. Moyle and California trout chair in cold-water fish ecology at the University of California, Davis. “So the vaquita is this collateral damage species that’s in trouble,”

Thursday’s complaint says there were likely only 10 vaquita left on the planet in 2018. The vaquita is the world’s smallest porpoise, measuring around 5 feet in length, and lives only in Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California. 

“If Mexico does not take serious, immediate, and concerted action to increase enforcement, the vaquita may be extinct by next year,” the complaint states. 

While both the vaquita and the totoaba are protected from international commercial trade, the conservation groups argue the Interior Department failed to act on a petition filed in 2014 to put a stop to continued fishing of the totoaba in Mexico. 

Numerous international bodies have raised concern over Mexico’s failure to halt illegal totoaba fishing and trade, including the UNESCO World Heritage Committee last year.

“The commission officially ‘expresse[d] its utmost concern that despite [Mexico’s surveillance efforts] … illegal fishing of totoaba has continued and even escalated in the upper Gulf of California resulting in a threat of imminent extinction of the vaquita population,’” the complaint states. 

The conservation groups suing the Trump administration want the U.S. government to certify Mexico under the decades-old Pelly Amendment so that the Treasury Department can prohibit “the importation into the United States of any products from the offending country.” 

Fish make up the large majority of all living vertebrate species on Earth, but around 50% are at risk, said Rypel from UC Davis.

Yet most endangered or at-risk fish are not the type of species that most people immediately think about, the professor added. 

“They’re things like suckers and minnows and darters, sometimes very small things, not what you would traditionally think of us beautiful, though I think they’re gorgeous,” Rypel said. 

The Interior Department did not respond to a request for comment on the complaint filed Thursday morning. 

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