The Political and Environmental Implications of Vaquita’s Extinction

If you’ve never heard of the “Goddess of the Yangtze” found in the Yangtze River, one of the largest rivers in Eastern China, you’re not alone. The Baiji dolphin, also known as the “Goddess of the Yangtze”, has been functionally extinct in the past 16 years. The extinction of this freshwater species occurred in the early 2000s due to man-made pollution and regional overfishing. The loss of the Baiji dolphin was tragic for conservationists and should have served as a lesson to the international community about ecosystem fragility, but the lesson has yet to sink in in 2022.

On February 10, 2022, the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) called for consultations on measures Mexico is taking against illegal fishing in the Gulf of California. The talks symbolize the United States’ criticism of Mexico for not fulfilling its original promises. This move is the latest development in the seven-year battle to protect the vaquita dolphin species. The battle over the vaquita has wider implications, not only for the near extinction of another dolphin species, but also for problems within the illegal wildlife trade and political tensions between the United States, Mexico and China.

What and who is a Vaquita (Ba-key-ta)?

In 2016, the vaquita was considered the most endangered porpoise species, there are only 60 left in the world. Today, it is estimated that only ten remain in the wild. The species was discovered in 1958 and is found only in the Gulf of California in Mexico. Considered “shy personalities”, the vaquita (Phocoena sinus) is often only five feet high and weighs up to 120 pounds, making them the smallest of all porpoises. This critically endangered mammal is currently most threatened by bycatch from fishing. Usually, the vaquitas get entangled and drown in gillnets set up for other marine species.

In 2005, at the recommendation of the Comité Internacional para la Recuperación de la vaquita (the International Committee for the Restoration of the Vaquita, or CIRVA), the Mexican government created a vaquita flight area covering 80 percent of the area where vaquita sightings took place . But the increasing frequency of illegal fishing for totoaba fish (Totoaba macdonaldic) threatens these security measures. The totoaba is a critically endangered fish also found in the upper Gulf of California and totoaba gillnets are the leading cause of the decline of the vaquita. The totoaba is a fish highly prized for its swim bladder, which is dried by organized crime cartels and smuggled into China. These swim bladders are sold on the black market for exorbitant prices – up to US$46,000 per kg – due to the belief that some forms of Chinese medicine have the ability to cure a variety of diseases. International trade in totoaba is prohibited under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a global treaty of governments to regulate and ban international trade for endangered species. But despite these measures, thousands of swim bladders are consistently smuggled out of Mexico, often via the United States.

The goal behind the porpoise

The vaquita issue has attracted international attention, especially from the scientific community where organizations such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the CITES Secretariat, the International Whaling Commission and the United Nations World Heritage Convention are working multilaterally to address the issue. to deal with . However, despite concerted efforts, the population has declined by an estimated 98 percent since 2011. The IUCN analysis report indicated that there were about 10 vaquitas left in 2018, but that meant a 95 percent chance that the true value would be somewhere between 6 and 22. properly addressing, maintaining and protecting the vaquita species also has further implications for US-Mexico relations. The United States Trade Representative’s recent request for environmental consultations falls under the environmental chapter of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) and calls on the government of Mexico to fail to comply with the standards. The USMCA is the updated version of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that was drafted in 2018 under former US President Donald Trump. It includes new policy updates for labor and environmental standards, intellectual property protection, and some digital commerce provisions. These recent requests for consultations create a tense atmosphere by highlighting Mexico’s failure to comply with the USMCA obligation to protect the vaquita harbor porpoise and prevent illegal fishing and trafficking.

The relationship between the US and Mexico is crucial, but currently remains fragile. Mexico is currently the second largest trading partner of the United States. According to the US Department of Commerce, in 2019 the US helped support about 1.1 million jobs in Mexico through the export of goods and services. As a result, the vitality of millions of citizens and critical markets depends on a strong partnership between the US and Mexico. In addition, Mexico is currently acting as an intermediary in the ongoing Latin American migrant crisis. Many migrants are waiting in Mexico for their cases to be heard. This has led to significant tensions at the US-Mexico border, especially after calls for a border wall infuriated the Mexican government. Mexico is currently led by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, better known as AMLO, referred to by some as a left-wing populist because of his leadership style and political decision-making process. However, the shortcomings of one party or the lack of responsibility of another party can lead to negative externalities. Therefore, at a fragile time when rebuilding a strong relationship is important, the US’s recent request for environmental consultations may add further tension to a relationship that already faces an increasing pile of challenges.

Extinction as a deadly serious matter

The vaquita issue speaks of a general need for better accountability in multilateral environmental agreements. In addition, it speaks of the broader and often less advertised international crisis of the pet trade. Initiatives such as CITES have been launched by 179 countries that agreed to work together to fight illegal wildlife trade through stricter regulation and global cooperation. In the US, the Managing Authority (FWS) division of the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), within the Department of the Interior (DOI), along with the Office of Law Enforcement, is responsible for both the implementation and enforcement of CITES.

Often missed in the mass media is the unsustainable and growing illegal wildlife trade that is estimated to be a multi-billion dollar business. This practice involves harvesting and trading live animals and plants or parts and products derived from living organisms. These broad criteria include hides, leather goods or souvenirs, food and parts for traditional medicines, pets and more. In 2019, a story drew media attention from 11 individuals who were arrested and prosecuted for smuggling totoaba swim bladders from Mexico worth an estimated US$119 million. The report continued to highlight how these individuals allegedly brought in 20,000 swim bladders of totoaba fish and sold them in China. Similarly, other endangered animals that have been spotted on the black market include Pangolins, a species that some scientists are hailing the Coronavirus from China, due to the belief that their scales have medicinal value in certain parts of Asia. Similarly, following the report on the totoaba smugglers, a rhinoceros horn worth $1 million was found at an airport in Hong Kong. This illegal wildlife trade threatens not only the species, but also the ecosystems and local communities that depend on it. Global institutions must work together to fight this illegal practice, but a lack of enforcement or accountability on the one hand can lead to broken relationships, as the vaquita case shows.

What can we do about it?

Several initiatives have been taken to address this problem. In 2015, the Mexican government imposed a partial ban on gillnets. This decision was made permanent in 2017 when Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) along with Hollywood actor Leonardo Dicaprio and Mexican telecom billionaire Carlos Slim. At the multilateral level, in 2015, the FWS organized parties between China, the US and Mexico to tackle the illicit trade of totoaba, which was subsequently included in CITES in 2016. That same year, the US and Mexican presidents announced a bilateral cooperation strategy to protect the vaquita. A measure developed by CIRVA and initiated by Mexico’s National Institute of Fisheries (INAPESCA) and the World Wildlife Foundation (WFF) Mexico was the establishment of an international committee of experts to further develop and urgently develop vaquita-safe fishing technologies. implement.

The problem remains that nets designed for the totoaba harm the vaquita. Therefore, at a scientific level, marine mammal researchers are looking for ways to conserve the remaining population by proposing radical or risky conservation actions. Some ideas include finding ways to safely transport vaquitas to safer man-made sanctuaries, which can be both traumatizing and deadly to an endangered species. Another involves finding ways to promote breeding.

Other organizations such as CIRVA recommend both policy and scientific action for the government of Mexico. In their 2019 final report, they proposed to fully fund and expand net removal efforts in vaquita protected areas. Similarly, initiatives were recommended for round-the-clock surveillance and monitoring, protection for net removal teams and prosecution of illegal fishing. An extremely successful example of conservation comes from the city of Cabo Pulmo, Mexico. This Mexican town used to be a fishing village, but overfishing caused extreme damage to the sea. In 1995, local residents petitioned to mark the area as a Marine Protected Area (MPA), and this change allowed them to receive funding and protect the local reef. 22 years later, the 27-square-mile MPA has seen a 500 percent biomass return and an economic uptick through commercial tourism to see the restored reefs. A similar dynamic occurred in Turkey’s Conservation Bay. Currently, only 6.4 percent of the world’s ocean is MPA, but this strategy has been a very effective way to save reefs and endangered species.

While the most recent 2022 data shows a devastating approach to the remaining vaquita, scientists remain optimistic. Even with such a reduced population, there is some evidence that the vaquita may still be biologically viable if given the space and time to recover. The problem of endangered species is not a new phenomenon, nor should it be a general phenomenon. However, as past examples have shown us, such as the revitalization of the Turkish Conservation Bay, if individuals take collective action from all sides, scientific, political and social, recovery is possible.

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