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The vaquita, nicknamed the “panda of the sea” for its black-rimmed eyes and
mouth, is nearly extinct. Fewer than 15 are believed to exist.
(Los Angeles Times)
By Richard Ladkani
July 21, 2019
Why should you care about the vaquita, a tiny porpoise you have probably
never seen, living in a sea you may have never touched, with a fate tied to
a fish you likely didn’t know existed?
Because the vaquita is a powerful symbol of what we are losing on our
planet. If we can’t save this smallest and most endangered porpoise on
earth, what hope is there for rhinos, tigers or elephants? Unless
governments and societies the world over get much more involved in saving
endangered creatures, we will be destined to live in a terribly quiet world
with nothing wild.
The vaquita is on the brink of extinction. Fewer than 15 are believed to
exist, all in the Sea of Cortez, the gulf separating Baja California from
mainland Mexico. As the giant sea-bass totoabas are poached, vaquitas –
nicknamed “pandas of the sea” for their black-rimmed eyes and mouth – are
caught as bycatch in massive commercial fishing nets and die.
The drop in vaquita numbers from almost 570 in 1997
y.html> to a fraction of that today is directly linked to organized crime,
which drives the trafficking in totoaba swim bladders with complete
disregard for the destruction it leaves behind. A single bladder can fetch
up to $100,000 in China. There are millions to be made off of them, which
makes the trade almost unstoppable without the implementation of radical
It is not like the Mexican authorities haven’t tried. They declared the
vaquita habitat a natural reserve, imposed a fishing ban, helped fund the
VaquitaCPR <http://www.vaquitacpr.org/> rescue program, made the use of
gill nets illegal and started a compensation program for fishermen barred
from going out to sea. None of this has been able to stop the killing spree.
The chaos began after the Chinese hunted the bahaba, a giant sea bass in
nearby waters to the brink of extinction about a decade ago. As they
searched for a replacement, they found it nearly 8,000 miles away in the
totoaba, inhabiting an incredibly beautiful ecosystem that undersea explorer
Jacques Cousteau once described as the
ml> “the aquarium of the world.”
After the Chinese mafia of Tijuana joined forces with the Mexican drug
cartels, the brutal hunt began for the totoaba, nicknamed “the cocaine of
the sea.” Both the vaquita and the totoaba are listed as critically
endangered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of
Wild Fauna and Flora <https://www.cites.org/eng/disc/what.php> .
To catch the totoaba, fishermen are lured into illegality by the prospect of
riches and later extorted by the cartels. They drop thousands of gill nets
into the sea, anchoring them to the ocean floor, creating walls of death. In
addition to annihilating the totoaba, the nets snare turtles, sharks, sea
lions, birds, even whales. The vaquita is the most endangered victim of this
The laws to protect the marine environment in the Sea of Cortez are weakly
enforced. Illegal fishing is still widely viewed in Mexico as a petty crime
and widespread corruption enables it, especially among the military and
police. Mexico’s new government under President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador
has shown little interest in environmental issues, even halting a program
that provided monetary compensation to fisherman barred from all fishing
within the vaquita refuge – driving more of them into working illegally with
If more isn’t done, this enchanting and unique ecosystem three hours south
of the U.S.-Mexico border will be lost forever, along with the vaquita and
the totoaba. To prevent this, the local fishermen cannot be sidelined
without viable options to provide for their families and the international
community – especially the U.S. and China, but most of all Mexico – needs to
take a more aggressive stance in cracking down on transnational crime
syndicates that are decimating this marine life.
In June, two Chinese nationals were arrested when their vehicle was stopped
for speeding in Orange County and they were found transporting totoaba swim
bladders worth nearly $4 million
ly-an-estimated-20-vaquita-remaining-in-the-wild/> . In March, Chinese
authorities prosecuted 11 people for smuggling $119 million worth
of the bladders. And late last year Chinese customs officials confiscated
980 pounds of bladders
estimated to be worth about $26 million.
Of course, there is no second chance when it comes to extinction and time is
running out. Yet it is not too late to turn the tide, even for the vaquita.
DNA studies by scientists who research the vaquita show that the porpoises
can come back, even from very low numbers. All they need is a safe habitat,
which means space to roam without any nets.
Employees from nongovernmental organizations such as Earth League
International <https://earthleagueinternational.org/our-team/> and Sea
Shepherd <https://seashepherd.org/> have been working relentlessly to stop
the killing and disrupt the criminal totoaba networks, often at the risk of
their own lives, but their efforts can only buy time. Government agencies
need to step in and resolve the crisis.
The cartels are feasting on profits that rival the drug trade’s, yet they
encounter little to no resistance. Until making money off of stalking and
killing marine animals is recognized for what it is – organized crime – and
punished accordingly, the dwindling vaquita and totoaba in the azure waters
of the Sea of Cortez won’t stand a chance.
Richard Ladkani <http://www.richardladkani.com/> ‘s recently released
ry-review-20190710-story.html> “Sea of Shadows,” is about the battle to save