Home | Menu | Sign Up | Donate

The tragic twisted tale of the vaquita porpoise and the totoaba fish

The fates of two critically endangered species in the Gulf of California off the coast of Mexico are linked, as illegal fishing causes both populations to sharply decline.

The first is the totoaba. The totoaba is a large fish that can grow up to more than 6 feet in length and is known for its valuable swim bladder, also called the "maw" or "buoy." The swim bladder is highly prized in traditional Chinese medicine for its believed health benefits. The high demand for totoaba swim bladders has caused the price to rise to truly astonishing levels.

So while totoaba fishing has been illegal in Mexico since 1975, a black market industry remains. The methods of illegal fishing, particularly gillnets, have dealt damage not only to the totoaba population but to the vaquita as well.

Gillnets consist of a wall of netting that hangs vertically in the water, held in place by floats on the top and weights on the bottom. Fish swim into the net and get caught as their gills or bodies become entangled in the mesh. Because the net is nearly invisible underwater, fish often fail to see it as a barrier. A significant issue with gillnets is bycatch, where unintended species or non-target animals get caught in the nets. That's exactly what is happening with the second species, the vaquita.

Vaquitas are a critically endangered porpoise species. They are recognized as the smallest and most endangered cetacean (a group that includes whales, dolphins, and porpoises) in the world. It is estimated that fewer than 15 vaquitas remain.

Conservation efforts have been underway to protect and save the totoaba and vaquita from extinction. These efforts have included implementing gillnet bans, patrolling the vaquita's habitat to prevent illegal fishing, and attempting to rescue and relocate vaquitas to safer environments like marine sanctuaries. However, these initiatives have faced challenges due to the complexity of enforcing fishing regulations and the difficulties of relocating marine animals successfully.

It's clear that more must be done to save these critically endangered species from "dual extinction."

Thankfully, President Biden agrees.

Just last month, he sent a letter putting pressure on Mexico to do more to protect the vaquita and totoaba species and stop illegal fishing practices in their waters.

The letter outlines specific actions to address the situation:

I am hopeful that these efforts will help protect these two intertwined and critically endangered marine species.

Everything is connected in our world, and efforts to conserve biodiversity can have positive ripple effects on the environment, human societies, and global efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change. It's imperative that we elect more leaders like President Biden, who are willing to step up and protect the biodiversity of our planet and combat the climate crisis.

More soon,


Posted on August 22, 2023.