Vaquita killed in gill net fishery for totoaba in El Golfo de Santa Clara, Sonora, Mexico. Christian Faesi / Omar Vidal

China, Mexico and U.S. Target Illegal Totoaba Trade to Save Nearly Extinct Vaquita

As the first trilateral meeting of the governments of China, Mexico and the U.S. on illegal totoaba trade came to an end Friday, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) urged swift action to halt the trafficking of totoaba swim bladders and save the vaquita.

The world's most endangered marine mammal—the vaquita porpoise—is teetering on the brink of extinction as individuals are trapped as bycatch in gillnets cast illegally to capture totoaba—also a critically endangered species.

The totoaba and vaquita are species endemic to the Upper Gulf of California in Mexico, part of the Gulf of California World Heritage site. In recent years, unsustainable fishing practices and illegal wildlife trafficking have seen populations spiral downward, with vaquita numbers plummeting to as low as 30 or fewer individuals remaining.

As the majority of totoaba swim bladders follow an illegal trade route from Mexico through the U.S. to China, the first trilateral meeting, held this week in Ensenada, Mexico marks a potential turning point against totoaba trafficking where decisive action could bolster ongoing conservation efforts to protect the last remaining vaquitas. At the meeting, where WWF was participating as an observer, the three countries agreed to promote cooperation on investigating organized wildlife crime networks and strengthen customs training, paving the way toward improved collaboration in enforcement measures.

"Cross-border collaboration is essential to tackle a challenge at the scale of global wildlife crime," said Dr. Margaret Kinnaird, WWF wildlife practice leader. "Political will has long been a bottleneck in international efforts to crack down on illegal totoaba trade and the trilateral meeting marks a crucial moment that can mobilize the high-level policy efforts and collective determination needed to dismantle criminal syndicates and save the vaquita."

The meeting comes less than two months after the implementation of a permanent ban on the use of gillnets in the Upper Gulf of California as part of the strong commitment of the Mexican government to prevent the vaquita's extinction. The ban will be further accompanied by the retrieval of all abandoned or lost "ghost" nets within the vaquita habitat and the development of new fishing gear and techniques for local communities—measures considered imperative by WWF to halt the vaquita population decline and secure its habitat.

"As we head into a new fishing season in the Upper Gulf of California, the meeting reminds us all that we—and the vaquita—have no time to lose," said Jorge Rickards, director general of WWF-Mexico. "The commitment we have seen at the table today is promising but our work has only just begun. We urge the three countries to rapidly move to action even as we work together with local communities and partners to create a gillnet-free and healthy Upper Gulf of California—for both marine life such as the vaquita and totoaba, and people."

WWF has been working with the government of Mexico and other partners to identify and implement a comprehensive long-term strategy to save the vaquita and secure its habitat in the Upper Gulf of California, an important source of income, food and livelihood for thousands of people in the country. WWF was invited by the Mexican government to participate in the trilateral meeting as an official observer, alongside high-level representatives including Sec. of Environment and Natural Resources Rafael Pacchiano Alamán, as part of this ongoing cooperation.

"It is critical to leave no stone unturned in our efforts to save the vaquita and it is encouraging to see Mexico lead the way," added Rickards. "In the past months, the government has announced financial support for captive totoaba production, dispatched naval forces to the vaquita habitat and cracked down decisively on illegal fishing and we hope the discussions today lead to concrete actions that strengthen the impact of these efforts."

The trilateral meeting was organized as a follow-up to the 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, in Johannesburg in 2017 where China, Mexico and the U.S. committed to maintain cooperation and coordination in combating illegal fishing and trade in totoaba.

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