By: Our Correspondent

International environmental groups led by the Environmental Investigation Agency are warning that governments have one last slim chance to save the diminutive vaquita, a small cetacean in the Gulf of California in Mexico that is collateral damage to the huge profits by organized criminal networks that sell the swim bladders of larger totoaba fish in Asian markets, primarily China.

The plea is directed to the 18th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a multilateral treaty adopted in 1963 to protect endangered plants and animals. The conference of parties will be held from August 17 to 28 in Geneva, Switzerland. Only an estimated six to 19 of the animals remain. The total is believed to be just nine.

The EIA has produced a 16-page report describing the animals’ plight to be presented to the CITES conference. Their distribution is restricted to an area just 24 km by 12 km in the northernmost part of the gulf.  Nonetheless, despite the small size of their habitat, they can’t be protected from poachers after the swim bladders of the larger totoaba. The vaquita, actually a mammal-like other porpoises rather than a fish, is collateral damage in the Chinese lust for a delicacy known as jin qian min, translated as “golden coin maw” or “money maw” made from the swim bladders of the totoaba, which  sell for as much as US$22,000 per kg in Hong Kong and China, up from US$9,000 two years ago as they grow in scarcity.

The bladders, which the totoaba use to regulate buoyancy, are mistakenly thought to have therapeutic value in Chinese traditional medicine as with rhino horns, tiger penises, pangolin scales, sun bear gall bladders, deer horns, and shark’s fins. But as Chinese incomes rise, they turn to therapies and treatments dating to the 3rd century BCE.

Various fish species, including the totoaba because of its perceived kinship to the Chinese bahaba, or giant yellow croaker, are a prized species because they don’t taste fishy and they take on the taste characteristics of the ingredients. They are also used as a palliative during pregnancy.

The vaquita were expected to go extinct this year with the totoaba not far behind them although commercial fishing for them has been officially banned since 1975. When Asia Sentinel reported their story in January 2016, only 97 vaquita were left, meaning the population has shrunk by 90 percent in three years. In 1997, the count was 547. 

In April 2018, Mexican police arrested two men attempting to take 355 of the dried bladders out of the country. Just three days later, authorities discovered 417 totoaba maws in two suitcases of another Chinese national who was on his way to Guangzhou.

Nine NGOs supported the intervention, which highlighted the need for the three parties to substantially increase coordinated intelligence-led enforcement actions to end the illegal totoaba trade.

“While an uphill battle remains to save the species, today’s decision provides a much-needed ray of hope for the vaquita, strengthening previous decisions of CITES which require the three Parties to make serious progress towards ending the illegal totoaba trade,” said Clare Perry, Ocean Campaign Leader at the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency. “We welcome Mexico’s support of our intervention and sincerely hope that this represents a turn in the tide, with the country taking seriously its responsibility to fully

The totoaba’s swim bladders, like rhino horns, tiger penises, pangolin scales, sun bear gall bladders, deer horns, and shark’s fins, have no medicinal value. But as Chinese incomes rise, they turn to therapies and treatments dating to the 3d Century BCE. Various fish species, including the totoaba because of its perceived kinship to the Chinese bahaba, or giant yellow croaker, are a prized species used in traditional medicines and tonics. 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.

 “One of Earth’s most incredible creatures is about to be wiped off the planet forever,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Yet Mexico has only made paper promises to protect these porpoises from deadly nets, without enforcement on the water. Time is running out for President Lopez Obrador to stop all gillnet fishing and save the vaquita.”

 The crisis for the porpoise spurred a lawsuit filed on March 21, 2018 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. 

The 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.

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. Although the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit upheld a preliminary ban on Mexican seafood imports to save the vaquita, the Trump administration’s US Department of Commerce under Wilbur Ross has shown little interest in the case. In addition, illegal gill-netting continues to take its toll.

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. The vaquita is very likely about to disappear.