‘World’s Cutest Fish’ Headed for Extinction

One of the world’s smallest and rarest porpoises is about to disappear into extinction, according to critics, because of Chinese hunger for the swim bladder of a much larger fish, both as a delicacy and for use in Chinese medicine, although like many other ingredients of Chinese medicine there is no known scientific or therapeutic value.

In mid-March, conservation and animal advocacy organizations said only 12 vaquita porpoises still exist in the Gulf of California off the coast of Mexico despite efforts to protect them. When Asia Sentinel reported this story in January 2016, there were 97, meaning the population has shrunk by 88 percent in 15 months. In 1997, the count was 547.

The crisis for the vaquita porpoise, often called the “world’s cutest fish,” spurred a lawsuit filed on March 21 in US Federal Court in New York by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Biological Diversity and Animal Welfare Institute and other environmental advocacy organizations, asking for court intervention and an immediate ban on the import into the United States of Mexican shrimp and other seafood in an attempt to pressure Mexico to fully ban gillnets used to catch the imported consumer products in the vaquita’s home waters.

“This is the dolphin-tuna fish story all over again, only the situation is even more dire. If we don’t put immediate pressure on Mexico to manage its Baja fisheries in a sustainable way, we will lose this porpoise forever,” said Giulia Good Stefani, staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a press release. “This lawsuit might be the vaquita’s last chance.”

The vaquita are collateral damage, killed as by-catch when they are entangled in fishing nets over the increasing demand in China for the swim bladder of the equally endangered totoaba, which has resulted in intensive overfishing of the area. The swim bladders, which the fish use to regulate buoyancy, are known as jin qian min, translated as “golden coin maw” or “money maw” because of its perceived kinship to the Chinese bahaba, or giant yellow croaker, a prized species used in traditional medicines and tonics.

The porpoises are a conservation crusader’s dream. Only about 1.5 meters in length and weighing about 55 kg, they have large dark rings around their eyes and what appears to be a perpetual smile on their lips. They are so shy that they are counted by sound. They are most often found close to shore in the Gulf's shallow waters, although they quickly swim away if a boat approaches.

Commercial fishing for the larger – and uglier – totoaba was banned in 1975. But poachers have continued intensive fishing of the animals for their swim bladders, which the fish use to regulate buoyancy so that they don’t have to use their fins to maintain depth. The animals used to be abundant in the Gulf of California, but intense fishing took its toll.

The bladders, which can also be found in sturgeon and other fish, are known in Asia as fish maw and used in soups. Because of their structure, they don’t taste fishy, and they take on the taste characteristics of the ingredients. They are also used as a palliative during pregnancy and for ailments in Chinese medicine. And, as their scarcity has increased, the price has skyrocketed. The conservation group Defenders of Wildlife estimates that the bladders are sold for more than €9,000 (US$11,091) per kilogram.

The New York lawsuit argues that the Departments of Commerce, Treasury, and Homeland Security are violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), specifically regarding how it relates to foreign fishing practices. Under the MMPA, the government is required to ban seafood imports from fisheries that kill or injure marine mammals at a rate above US standards.

“The United States is a leading importer of fish products caught in the upper Gulf of California,” said Susan Millward, director of the Animal Welfare Institute’s marine animal program, in a prepared release. “Banning imports of gillnet-caught seafood from vaquita habitat would remove a key incentive for the ongoing use of this destructive fishing gear in the region. The US seafood market should not be contributing to the extinction of a species.”

Any chance that the Trump administration will move before the demise of the vaquita has to be considered a long shot at best, considering the administration’s antipathy to all things environmental. Other proposed solutions, including trapping the animals and moving them to a safer environment, are considered impractical, since taking them out of their current habitat risks all kinds of unknown dangers and conditions.

Thus, banning the gillnets, a solution that the Mexican government has so met with indifference, is the only hope and one that is about as likely as the Trump administration banning Mexican shrimp. The vaquita is very likely about to disappear.