Have you seen Leonardo DiCaprio’s documentary Sea of Shadows? Released in 2019, it shows the poaching suffered by totoaba in Mexican waters, with dramatic consequences for another anima, the vaquita, an adorable porpoise very close to extinction. We detected the efforts of scientists to save the mammal while Sea Shepherd teams patrolled the protected area where these animals live to track down illegal activities and remove nets from the water.
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Who is totoaba?
Totoaba (from the scientific name totoaba mcdonaldi) a large silverfish that lives in the Gulf of California in Mexico. At late puberty, around six to seven years old, it can live up to 25 years. If he’s not poached first…
Scientists estimate that the totoaba population has declined by 95% in less than a century. The fish suffer from habitat degradation, but above all from intensive fishing and poaching.
In China, the swim bladder of this fish is especially loved, used in cooking, especially in stews or soups. According to traditional Chinese medicine, this bladder can stimulate the immune system and can be used as a dietary supplement. Considered a luxury product, a symbol of wealth, it can sell for $20,000 a kilo, much more than cocaine.
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This highly lucrative illegal trade, which began in 1920, has accelerated in recent years. This attracted Mexican cartels who specialized in poaching and selling totoaba bubbles on the black market. So, in 2017, about 30,000 totoaba were poached because of their bladder.
During the Sea of Shadows documentary in 2019, the Mexican government ordered a ban on gillnet fishing in areas inhabited by the totoaba and vaquita. But it is difficult to enforce this measure given the financial stakes. The armed poachers became more and more aggressive, especially against the Sea Shepherd units, who relentlessly scoured the area to protect the animals.
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Who is a vaquita?
The waquita is simply the rarest cetacean in the world, a byproduct of the totoaba fishery. This small 1.2 to 1.5 meter guinea pig is also endemic to the Gulf of California. He very often finds himself trapped in nets meant for totoaba. As a result, the number of vaquitas has increased from 600 individuals in 1997 to 18 adults in 2017.
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A rescue operation aimed at capturing all the vaquitas in order to place them in protected enclosed spaces has even been launched by the Mexican government. The goal was that small mammals could breed in captivity, safe from any danger. But the capture of the first individual, a female, led to her death, the species did not support captivity.
The scientific community and the government then agreed that the only way to protect this critically endangered mammal was to crack down on totoaba poaching and remove all fishing nets from the waters of the Persian Gulf. Insufficient measures, as the vaquita population in 2022 was estimated at only eight individuals.
A bleak future for totoaba and vaquita
Despite these alarming numbers, CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) on March 11, 2022 authorized the resumption of the totoaba trade with 9 votes in favor and 6 votes against. However, its international trade was banned for almost 50 years. A decision that could very well decide the fate of the totoaba… but especially the vaquita.
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“Support of two members of the European Standing Committee (Belgium and Poland, ed.), allowed this request to be granted without regard to the precautionary principle and the potentially catastrophic consequences for the endangered vaquita, said Claire Perry, Environmental Research Agency’s ocean and climate campaign manager. Mexico has repeatedly failed to prevent the illegal capture of totoaba for the international swim bladder market. The legal totoaba trade, whether it involves swim bladders or not, will only complicate enforcement and increase the demand for wild fish that share the same habitat as the vaquita.”
For his part, Alex Olivera, Senior Scientist and Representative of Mexico at the Center for Biological Diversity, said: “This decision is absurd and could be the final straw for one of the most endangered marine mammals on our planet. As the vaquita is critically endangered, we must do everything we can to eliminate all threats to the vaquita, including the totoaba trade. CITES decision to open the totoaba trade only exacerbates the growing threat to the vaquita.”
Here are the voting details among the 15 committee members: The US, Israel, Argentina, Peru, Oceania (represented by Australia) and Senegal voted against. On the other hand, Namibia, Ethiopia, China, Kuwait, Indonesia, Dominican Republic, Poland, Belgium and Georgia voted in favor. Canada abstained.
In particular, under pressure from the United States and Leonardo DiCaprio, the Mexican government has invested heavily in recent months in a “miraculous operation” to save the last vaquitas.
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