'Aquatic Cocaine' Is Killing The World's Cutest Porpoise

Fewer than 60 vaquita are left, but with swift action there's hope for their recovery.

24/09/2016 2:35 AM AEST | Updated 25/09/2016 12:17 AM AEST
Omar VidalCarlos Navarro
Dead vaquita atop the gillnets that killed it.

Five feet long and weighing about 120 pounds, the vaquita is the world’s smallest porpoise.

It may also be the world’s cutest porpoise, what with its snub snout and panda-like dark spots around its eyes. But with fewer than 60 of its kind left in the world, the vaquita is without doubt the most endangered. 

And according to a new report issued on the eve of a major international meeting on wildlife conservation, these diminutive sea mammals face almost certain extinction unless action is taken to stem the illegal trade in “aquatic cocaine.”

Not familiar with the term? Aquatic cocaine is slang for the dried swim bladder of a marine fish known as the totaoba, itself an endangered species.

Dried fish innards may sound icky to you. But in certain parts of China, aquatic cocaine (also known as fish maw) is a believed to have medicinal value. And its cost rivals that of illicit drugs ― hence the “aquatic cocaine” moniker. 

One pound of the stuff could set you back $5,000, The New York Times reported earlier this year. The report says a really good fish maw specimen can command a whopping $50,000.

Totoaba maw on display for shoppers.

Why would stopping the fish maw trade help save the vaquita from extinction? Because as luck would have it, both vaquitas and totoaba live only in Mexico’s Gulf of California ― and the former are drowning in the illegal nets that poachers use to catch the latter so that the maws can be smuggled to China.

“Most traders and buyers aren’t even aware of the connection between the two species,” Clare Perry, head of the oceans campaign of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), the United Kingdom-based conservation organization that issued the report, told New Scientist. “If we don’t stop the illegal trade, this will be a dual extinction.”

Both vaquitas and totoaba are protected species, and international trade in totoaba has been banned for decades. But according to the report, aptly entitled “Collateral Damage,” the trade in fish maw persists because the appetite for it does ― and because enforcement efforts aren’t up to the task. 

“There have been significant efforts to crack down on illegal fishing for totoaba and remove gillnets from the range of the vaquita,” Perry said in a news release. “But these efforts will not save the vaquita without coordinated international action to eliminate the illegal trade in totoaba, particularly in the main consumer market in China.”

Omar Vidal
Vaquita calves recovered from gillnets in 1991-1992. 

The report calls on China to step up enforcement of the fish maw ban, with surveillance of seafood markets and enhanced border inspections, seizure of fish maw products and arrests and prosecution of offenders. 

For its part, Mexico should rid the vaquita’s range of all “ghost” nets, as poachers’ abandoned nets are known, and permanently ban all fishing in the area where vaquitas live.

“At this point, the vaquita can only be saved if the Mexican government immediately and indefinitely bans all fishing within its habitat, Omar Vidal, CEO of World Wildlife Fund in Mexico, wrote on earlier this year. “Anything else is just wishful thinking.”

Omar Vidal
This photo, taken in the early 1990s, shows a Totoaba (being held by the man) and vaquita that were caught in a net.

Perry expressed hope that the campaign to save the vaquita will get a jump-start beginning Saturday, when the member nations of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) convene in Johannesburg, South Africa. CITES is an international treaty aimed at making sure the trade in wild animals and plants doesn’t threaten their survival.

If Mexico fails to take the recommended steps, vaquitas will go extinct “in a few years,” Dr. Barbara Taylor, a vaquita expert with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries program, told The Huffington Post in an email.

And what if policymakers make the changes being pushed by EIA and other conservation groups?

“I would hope that we would see a stabilization in the population and slowly it would start to increase,” Perry told HuffPost in an email. “It will take a long time and it will require constant vigilance, but recovery is certainly possible.”

Taylor agrees. She predicted decades would pass before the vaquita population rose significantly but pointed out that other species have come back from the brink.

“So there are success stories,” she said.

Copyright Todd Pusser
Only about 60 vaquita are believed to exist in the world.
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