If you have never heard of the “goddess of Yangtze” found in the Yangtze River, one of the largest rivers located in East China, you are not alone. The Baiji dolphin, also nicknamed the “goddess of Yangtze,” has been functionally extinct for the last 16 years. The extinction of this freshwater species occurred in the early 2000s as a result of man-made pollution and regional overfishing. The loss of the Baiji dolphin was tragic to wildlife conservationists and should have served as a lesson to the international community about ecosystem fragility—but in 2022, the lesson has yet to sink in.
On February 10, 2022, the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) called for consultations on measures Mexico is taking against illegal fishing in the Gulf of California. The consultations symbolize the United States’ criticism of Mexico for falling short of its original promises. This step is the most recent development in the ongoing seven-year battle to protect the vaquita dolphin species. The fight for the vaquita has greater implications not only for the near extinction of another dolphin species, but also for issues within the illegal wildlife trade and political tensions between the United States, Mexico, and China.
What and Who is a Vaquita (Ba-key-ta)?
In 2016, the vaquita was considered the most endangered species of porpoise, with around only 60 remaining in the world. Today, there are estimated to be only ten left in the wild. The species was discovered in 1958 and is only found in Mexico’s Gulf of California. Considered “shy personalities,” the vaquita (Phocoena sinus) is often only five feet in height and weighs up to 120 pounds, making them the smallest of all porpoises. This critically endangered mammal is currently most threatened by fishery bycatch. Most often, the vaquitas get entangled and drown in gillnets set for other marine species.
In 2005, the Mexican government, acting on the recommendation of el Comité Internacional para la Recuperación de la vaquita (the International Committee for the Recovery of the vaquita or CIRVA), created a vaquita refuge area encompassing 80 percent of the area where vaquita sightings occurred. But the increasing frequency of illegal fishing for totoaba fish (Totoaba macdonaldi) threatens these safety measures. The totoaba is a critically endangered fish also found in the upper Gulf of California and the gillnets set for totoaba are the main cause of the decline in vaquita. The totoaba is a type of fish heavily prized for their swim bladders, which are dried and smuggled to China by organized crime cartels. These swim bladders are sold on the black market for exorbitantly high prices—up to US$46,000 per kg—due to a belief originating from some forms of Chinese medicine that they can cure a variety of diseases. The international trade of totoaba is banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a global treaty by governments to regulate and ban international trade for species under threat. But despite these measures, thousands of swim bladders are consistently smuggled out of Mexico, often through the United States.
The Purpose behind the Porpoise
The vaquita issue has drawn international attention, especially from the scientific community where organizations such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), CITES Secretariat, the International Whaling Commission, and the United Nations World Heritage Convention are working multilaterally to address the problem. However, despite joint efforts, the population has declined an estimated 98 percent since 2011. The IUCN analysis report indicated around 10 vaquitas remained in 2018, but that meant a 95 percent chance of the true value being somewhere between 6 and 22. The failure to properly address, enforce, and protect the vaquita species also has further implications for US-Mexico relations. The United States Trade Representative’s recent request for Environment Consultations falls under the Environment Chapter of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) and calls on the Government of Mexico for their failure to uphold standards. The USMCA is the updated version of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) created in 2018 under former US President Donald Trump. It includes new policy updates to labor and environmental standards, intellectual property protections, and some digital trade provisions. These recent consultation requests create a tense environment by highlighting Mexico’s failure to meet the USMCA obligation to protect the vaquita porpoise and prevent illegal fishing and trafficking.
The US-Mexico relationship is crucial, yet it currently remains fragile. Mexico is currently the United States’ second-largest trading partner. According to the US Department of Commerce, in 2019 the US helped support around 1.1 million jobs in Mexico through the export of goods and services. As a result, the vitality of millions of citizens and critical markets is dependent on a strong US-Mexico partnership. Furthermore, Mexico currently serves as an intermediary in the ongoing Latin American migrant crisis. Many migrants find themselves waiting in Mexico for their cases to be heard. This has led to substantial tensions on the US-Mexico border, especially following calls for a border wall which angered the Mexican government. Mexico is currently being led by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, better known as AMLO, whom some have called a Leftist Populist for his leadership style and political decision-making process. However, the shortcomings of one party or lack of accountability of another may lead to negative externalities. Therefore, in a fragile time where rebuilding a strong relationship is important, the recent US environmental consultation request may create further tension in a relationship that is already facing a rising pile of challenges.
Extinction as a Deadly Serious Matter
The vaquita issue speaks to a general need for improved accountability in multilateral environmental agreements. Moreover, it speaks to the broader and often less advertised international crisis of animal trafficking. Initiatives like CITES were created by 179 nations agreeing to work together to combat the illegal wildlife trade through increased regulations and global cooperation. In the US, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) Division of Management Authority, within the Department of Interior (DOI), along with the Office of Law Enforcement are in charge of both implementation and enforcement of CITES.
Often missed in mass media is the unsustainable and growing illegal wildlife trade that is estimated to be a multibillion-dollar business. This practice includes the harvesting and trading of live animals and plants or parts and products derived from living organisms. These broad criteria include skins, leather goods or souvenirs, food and parts for traditional medicine, pets, and more. In 2019 a story caught the media attention of 11 individuals being arrested and prosecuted for smuggling totoaba swim bladders from Mexico with an estimated value of US$119 million. The report continued to highlight how these individuals allegedly brought 20,000 swim bladders of totoaba fish and were selling them in China. Similarly, other endangered animals that have been seen on the black market are Pangolins, a species that some scientists source the Coronavirus originating in China, due to the belief that their scales have medicinal value in certain parts of Asia. Similarly, following the report on the totoaba smugglers, a rhino horn with a value of one million US dollars was found in a Hong Kong airport. This illegal wildlife trade is not only a threat to the species but also to the ecosystems and local communities that rely on them. In the fight against this illegal practice, global institutions must work together, but a lack of enforcement or accountability on one end can lead to fracturing relationships as seen through the vaquita case.
What Can We Do About it?
Several initiatives have been undertaken to tackle this issue. In 2015, the Mexican government created a partial gillnet ban. This decision was made permanent in 2017 when Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto worked with Hollywood actor Leonardo Dicaprio and Mexican telecoms billionaire Carlos Slim to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). On the multilateral level, in 2015 the FWS organized parties between China, the US, and Mexico to address the issue of totoaba being illegally trafficked which was then incorporated under CITES in 2016. In that same year, the US and Mexican Presidents announced a bilateral collaboration strategy to protect the vaquita. One measure developed by CIRVA and initiated by Mexico’s National Institute of Fisheries (INAPESCA) and World Wildlife Foundation (WFF) Mexico was to create an international committee of experts to further develop and urgently implement vaquita-safe fishing technologies.
The issue still remains of nets designed for the totoaba harming the vaquita. Therefore, on the scientific level, marine-mammal researchers are seeking ways to preserve the remaining population by imagining radical or risky conservation actions. Some ideas include finding ways to safely transport vaquitas to safer man-made sanctuaries, which can be both traumatizing and fatal for an endangered species. Another includes finding ways to promote breeding.
Other organizations like CIRVA are recommending both policy and scientific measures for the Government of Mexico. In their 2019 final report, they suggested fully funding and expanding net removal efforts in protected vaquita areas. Similarly, initiatives for 24-hour surveillance and monitoring, protections for net removal teams, and prosecution of illegal fishing were recommended. One extremely successful example of conservation comes from the city of Cabo Pulmo, Mexico. This Mexican city was formerly a fishing town but overfishing caused extreme marine damage. In 1995 the locals petitioned to mark the area as a marine protected area (MPA), and under this change, they were able to receive funding and protect the local reef. 22 years later, the 27 square mile MPA has seen a 500 percent biomass return and economic revival through commercial tourism to see the restored reefs. A similar dynamic occurred in the Turkish Conservation Bay. Currently, only 6.4 percent of the world’s ocean is an MPA, but this strategy has been a highly effective way to save reefs and endangered species.
Even though the most recent data from 2022 reflect a devastating approximation of vaquita remaining, scientists remain optimistic. Even with such a diminished population, there is evidence that the vaquita is still biologically viable if they are given the space and time to recover. The issue of endangered species is not a new phenomenon, nor should it be a common one. However, as past examples have shown us, such as the revitalization of the Turkish Conservation Bay, if individuals take collective action from all sides, scientifically, politically, and socially, restoration is possible.