Most endangered marine mammal targeted by ‘organised crime’ entering China’s black market

'How do you fight an illegal fishery that offers wealth in a climate of poverty?'

Kimberley Richards
New York
Monday 30 July 2018 21:40 BST
Vaquita dolphins being pushed to brink of extinction by greedy fishermen

At the verge of extinction, vaquita porpoises have fallen victim to continued “organised crime” and greed within the illegal wildlife trade of China’s black market, marine biologists say.

The vaquita, nicknamed the senorita of the sea or the panda of the ocean, is considered to be among the most endangered marine mammals in the world. It’s been estimated there’s fewer than 30 vaquitas left in the wild, with some estimations citing to a significantly smaller number than that. Marine experts have warned that ongoing illegal wildlife trade is having grave effects on the endangered species which live in Baja California, Mexico.

Some fisherman illegally use gill nets to catch totoaba, a fish which also lives off Mexico’s coast for its swim bladder, which is purported to have medicinal effects including boosting fertility. Lorenzo Rojas Bracho, head of the marine mammal conservation and research for the National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change (INECC) in Mexico told CBS that the demand for totaba has skyrocketed and can sell for up to $10,000 in the Chinese market. As it turns out, gill nets used to catch totoaba inadvertently snare and kill vaquita, making the illegal practice detrimental to the species.

“Organised crime moving this product from Mexico to China, entering the black market… and you have authorities, bribes...” Mr Bracho said in an interview with CBS.

Some fisherman illegally use gill nets despite the two-year ban enacted by Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto in 2015 and then a permanent ban in 2017. Ongoing use of gill nets have, as a result, killed vaquitas.

Research on the vaquita by the Porpoise Conservation Society found that from 2011 to 2016, the population of the mammals had decreased by 90 per cent. While estimations have revealed that only 30 vaquitas were left last year, Mr Bracho told CBS that this year there are fewer than 15 left in the world.

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In an interview with Quartz in 2015, Mr Bracho called the totoaba’s swim bladder market the “cocaine of the sea.”

As various reports and documentaries have worked to uncover the grave effects the illegal activity to capture totoaba have on the vaquita, efforts to save the endangered species have been underway.

A team of marine biologists and experts formed VaquitaCPR in 2017, for example, to rescue vaquitas by transporting them into temporary human care until the use of all gill nets had been fully eliminated. But the team halted operations after one female vaquita later died after attempts to acclimate her to her new environment.

“She died in the arms of a team that had courageously gathered to give vaquitas a chance at survival,” the team at VaquitaCPR wrote. “Heartbroken and devastated, the team halted capture operations.”

The VaquitaCPR team has continued its efforts to save vaquitas, by focusing on efforts to prevent gill nets from entering the water. On its website, the team has proposed exploring alternative fishing methods not harmful to vaquitas.

“Can alternative fishing gear that does not kill vaquitas be developed in time to save the species?” the website states. “We can’t save the vaquita and drive fishers to extinction. How do you fight an illegal fishery that offers wealth in a climate of poverty? We need all hands on deck to save not just the vaquita, but also the fishing communities in Baja. And we don’t have a moment to spare.”

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