July 27, 2016 7:30 am July 27, 2016 7:30 am
A pair of vaquitas, a porpoise driven toward extinction by certain fishing methods, in Mexico’s Gulf of California.Credit Paula Olson / NOAA
In theory, July 9 was International Save the Vaquita Day, conceived to press Mexico to do more to protect the last few dozen members of a tiny and profoundly endangered porpoise species confined to overfished waters at the north end of the Gulf of California.
A 2015 survey of the home waters of the world’s most endangered marine mammal, Mexico’s vaquita porpoise, found the population has continued to plunge.Credit International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita
In practice, last Friday could well have been that day. After a morning meeting at the White House, President Obama and President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico released a long list of new initiatives on issues of shared concern. Sorry, Donald, there’s no wall building, but the list touches on climate-friendly energy initiatives, trade and travel and — crucially for the vaquita — a strong new suite of commitments from both nations.
Most important, by far, is Nieto’s presidential-level affirmation that Mexico will turn what was to be a two-year moratorium on deadly gill nets in vaquita habitat into a permanent ban. Here’s the relevant section of the joint announcement, along with my thoughts on a critical next step involving China:
– Mexico will make permanent a ban on the use of gillnets in all fisheries throughout the range of the vaquita in the upper Gulf of California;
– Both countries will increase cooperation and enforcement efforts to immediately halt the illegal fishing for and illegal trade in totoaba swim bladders;
– Both countries will redouble efforts, in collaboration with international experts, to develop alternative fishing gear to gillnets that does not result in the entanglement of vaquita and establish “vaquita-safe” fisheries;
– Both countries will establish and implement a long-term program to remove and permanently dispose of illegal and derelict fishing gear from vaquita habitat in the upper Gulf of California.
The permanent ban had been announced by fisheries officials in Mexico earlier last week, but the presidential agreement reinforces the commitment.
A 60 Minutes report in May provided a helpful fresh look at the challenging realities on the waters off San Felipe, the Mexican town where many of the fishing boats plying the vaquita’s habitat are based.
Dried swim bladders from a large endangered Mexican fish, the totoaba, for sale in Guangshou, China.Credit Environmental Investigation Agency
The report also focused on an issue I’ve written on periodically — how the vaquita death rate has been driven up by unrelenting Chinese demand for the dried swim bladder of the totoaba, a large endangered fish found in the same waters. The air-breathing marine mammals become entangled in the fine-mesh nets.
But there could be reason for hope on the demand side, as well. A fascinating 2015 feature story in Quartz by Gwynn Guilford laid out links between the global economic crisis of 2008, Chinese investment habits and the poor vaquita. Here’s an excerpt on how the “bladder bubble” built and burst:
What drove the demand was that in times of strife, Chinese households have been known to stockpile the more valuable bladders as speculative investments, on some occasions even trading them as currency.
That’s what happened after the 2008 global financial crisis hit. The Chinese government reacted with a stimulus package that sent easy money sloshing around the economy—adding up to 17.5 trillion yuan ($2.8 trillion) in 2009 and 2010 (paywall). Cash flooded into a dizzying array of speculative assets, from property and copper to modern art to pu’er tea—and totoaba bladders. Traders in Hong Kong tell of selling large bladders for HK$1 million ($130,000) in 2011 and 2012, according to a recent Greenpeace East Asia report (pdf). These merchants emphasized that buyers weren’t interested in health tonics; they were snapping up these “cash bladders,” as they call them, as investments….
The Chinese investors’ appetite for bladders, the economic slump in Mexico, and lax enforcement created a perfect storm. Signs of the totoaba slaughter began showing up in the upper Gulf of California around 2011, says Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, head of marine mammal conservation and research for the National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change (INECC) in Mexico.
If the Chinese government cracks down on this illicit trade and speculation and, at the same time, supports efforts to educate consumers the way it did with shark fin soup, it’s conceivable that the vaquita could, by the narrowest conceivable margin, avoid extinction.
Time will tell. I created a bit of artwork to share the message in Chinese. Help pass it to friends in China.
A Mexican porpoise on the verge of extinction needs immediate help from China. Credit Dot Earth
Here are some additional reactions:
Zak Smith, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council focused on marine mammal protection, pointed hopefully to a mention of the totoaba in an agreement last month on marine conservation goals between maritime officials from China and the United States:
China has a vital role to play in saving the vaquita by aggressively rooting out the trafficking of totoaba in Hong Kong and mainland China. The illegal gill-net fishing of totoaba in the northern Gulf of California is causing the vaquita’s perilous decline. Fortunately, just last month the United States and China made important commitments to reduce the impact of wildlife trafficking on totoaba. These commitments and the additional commitments made by Mexico and the United States offer a path for vaquita survival. It is critical for all three countries to live up to their promises
Kate O’Connell, a marine wildlife consultant with the Animal Welfare Institute, reinforced how the shark fin campaign provides a template for curbing demand for totoaba bladders:
It is crucial for the Chinese government to get ahead of the trafficking in totoaba buches. [Buche is the Mexican term for the swim bladders.] Unfortunately, despite calls from both the Mexican and U.S. governments, China has barely acknowledged the conservation crisis that the demand for this high-priced fish product has caused.
Both the Chinese government and nonprofit groups need urgently to address the demand issue with well thought out public education programs. Since the government banned the use of shark fins in government banquets, for example, and celebrity-fronted campaigns such as Wild Aid’s effort with Yao Ming, it appears that demand for shark fins has dropped. If both the vaquita and totoaba are to survive, China must become part of a multi-faceted solution, rather than the major market for an illegal marine product that is helping to drive the vaquita to extinction.