The New York Times published an op-ed by Richard Parker this week that highlighted the near-extinction of the vaquita, a small whale that lives in the Sea of Cortez off the waters of Mexico between the mainland and the Baja peninsula. The vaquita, “small cow,” is the smallest cetacean, weighing less than one hundred pounds and less than five feet in length when fully grown. “It’s the most endangered marine mammal,” said an adviser for the World Wildlife Fund last month to NPR. “They are beautiful animals. They look like they have lipstick on and mascara.” Experts estimate that there are only between one and two dozen vaquitas left in the wild. Their numbers will continue to diminish if humans do not intervene.
What is killing them? For one thing, plastic. Vaquitas end up as by-catch in the Sea of Cortez, getting tangled up in illegal gillnets that poachers cast into the waters for a different species, the totoaba. The totoaba is a fish whose swim bladders go for over $10,000 on the Chinese black market, used as in ingredient in a medicinal soup. The fishermen harvest the totoaba, then discard the carcasses of the vaquita. NPR reported that back in 2013, Fish and Wildlife Service agents busted a smuggler whose home was filled with $3.6 million in bladders and large fans that were set up to dry them out. These bladders are routed mainly through California to make their way to Chinese markets. The trade is so lucrative that cartels are supposedly getting in on it, too.
That’s just one sea mammal and one ecosystem, though. Gillnets are commonly used by the commercial fishing industry all over the world and devastate marine wildlife. There’s the issue of bycatch, which ensnares any sea creature that crosses its path regardless of what the fishermen are hoping to catch. But there’s also the issue of “ghost nets.” Ghost nets are abandoned gillnets that wreak havoc on the marine ecosystem long after fishermen have left. They kill more than 100,000 marine mammals each year, according to statistics cited by National Geographic.
Simply banning gillnet use in the Sea of Cortez will do little to prevent the vaquita from going extinct; in fact, Enrique Peña Nieto did ban the nets in 2015. The Times piece suggested that current President López Obrador will need to go well beyond a gillnet use ban and actually ban the possession of the gillnets themselves. Additionally, the Mexican government will need to ramp up their efforts to financially incentivize fishermen to remove ghost nets from the water, which some fishermen have already begun to do in exchange for compensation. Mexico will also need to work to curb poaching by allowing courts to prosecute criminals whose activities have been captured on video; as of now, video footage of poaching cannot be used as evidence in court.