'Cocaine of the sea:' How the pursuit of one sea animal is driving two species to extinction

The vaquita population has been in rapid decline. Source: Photo credit: VaquitaCPR

An illegal trade is threatening the existence of the smallest marine mammal in the world – the vaquita porpoise. Endemic to the northern Gulf of California, the vaquita has been pushed to the brink of extinction by illegal fishing and a Chinese underground trade. Today, there are fewer than 20 vaquitas left in the world.

 Known as ‘little cow’ in Spanish, the vaquita population has been in rapid decline since the species was discovered in 1958. Regular surveys have found that the population has shrunk by 95 per cent since 1997

The decline of the vaquita population 1997 to 2018.
The decline of the vaquita population 1997 to 2018.

Though illegal fishing is the cause of their demise, vaquitas aren’t the target of fishers. Unfortunately for vaquitas, they are the same size as the highly prized totoaba fish and often get caught in their gillnets. A cheap and effective fishing method, gillnets are placed vertically in the ocean and catch everything swimming in its path. Vaquitas entangled in gillnets suffocate and drown. Despite gillnets being banned in the Gulf of California since 2017, the money gained from trafficking totoaba is worth the risk. 

Dubbed the ‘cocaine of the sea’, the totoaba fish is more valuable than cocaine in Mexico and a considerably safer illegal industry for traffickers. The incessant pursuit of totoaba have resulted in both animals ending up on the endangered species list. If not for conservation efforts by the national and international community to remove gillnets and stop trafficking, the vaquita might have become extinct years ago.  

Why are totoaba so valuable? 

 Totoaba are prized for their swim bladders, the organ that regulates buoyancy. These swim bladders are dried and smuggled into China where they can be sold on the black market for thousands of yuan. Swim bladders or ‘maw’ are considered a delicacy in Chinese cuisine.  

In traditional Chinese medicine, swim bladders are thought to have nutritional and curative powers, though there is little evidence to support this.  

Totoaba are prized for their swim bladders.
Totoaba are prized for their swim bladders.

Dried swim bladders can also be stored for a long time which has inspired wealthy Chinese to use swim bladders as gifts, bribes and financial investments. “It's the perfect way to bribe someone. [When] meeting with another businessman or corrupt government official, instead of coming with cash you're coming with a totoaba swim bladder.” says Andrea Crosta, Executive Director of Earth League International. 

Chinese demand for swim bladders is also responsible for the overfishing of two other species – the Gulf corvina and Chinese bahaba.  

Conservation efforts  

As vaquita numbers dwindle, conservation efforts have increased. Since the early 1990s, different approaches have been taken to protect the species, ban gillnetting and crack down on the illegal totoaba trade. But the lure of money, loopholes in the system and lack of enforcement have limited the effectiveness of these measures. 

In 1993, the Mexican government established the Upper Gulf of California Biosphere Reserve which banned gillnetting near the mouth of the Colorado River. Later in 2005, the Vaquita Refuge was established which banned all commercial fishing in the area. Despite this, fishers and gillnets are commonly found in the area.  

In the mid-2000s, the Mexican government introduced a compensation and buyback scheme. The government offered local fisherman money in exchange for their gillnets, boat or fishing permits. This scheme was abused as fishermen were found buying new nets and boats with the buyback money. “If I give you $600 not to go fishing, what do you do? You get the $600 and then you go fishing. Of course, because one swim bladder is $4,000.” said Andrea Crosta. 

There were also flaws in the way the government compensation was distributed. “There were countless number of corruption events. Money arrived not to every single fishermen but to the owners of the fishing cooperatives. And then it was their responsibility to distribute it to the fishermen. And so all of a sudden, the wife and the children of the owner of fishing companies became fisherman [in order to get money].” said Andrea Crosta. 

One of the most recent conservation attempts and subject of a documentary Sea of Shadows, was the construction of a sanctuary in the Sea of Cortez to house the remaining vaquitas away from the threat of gillnets. Dr Barbara Taylor, a lead scientist involved in the VaquitaCPR project said “It wasn't until we got down to 30 individuals remaining that we decided we needed consider doing a Hail Mary, a last emergency effort to take vaquitas into captivity until we could solve this totoaba problem.” 

In 2017, the VaquitaCPR team captured two vaquitas. The first, a six-month-old calf, was immediately released due to stress. The second, an adult female, was brought into the sea pen and appeared to be coping well but hours later died of shock. “It was a heartbreaking, heart wrenching experience for all of us.” said Dr Barbara Taylor.  


vaquita fishing
Malaika Pictures

The death prompted the VaquitaCPR project to close as it showed vaquitas cannot cope with human interaction. “Every species that has been taken into captivity, the veterinarians have to get through this steep learning curve.”  said Dr Barbara Taylor. Unfortunately for the vaquita, their population numbers are too low to risk that learning curve.  

Eco-trafficking in the time of COVID 

The coronavirus pandemic has not slowed the illegal trade of totoaba swim bladders. “It’s business as usual,” said Andrea Crosta. “There is less attention to this problem right now. Many offices of law enforcement and custom around the world are at the moment understaffed, under resourced, some of them are sick with COVID. So if you are a smart trafficker, this is the time to work well.” 

In June 2020, the largest seizure of totoaba swim bladders in nearly two decades occurred in Hong Kong. 270 swim bladders weighing 160 kilograms and valued at $4.5 million dollars (AUD) were found hidden under a cargo of fish fillets.  

The lack of attention this year due to the pandemic, coupled with scientists’ inability to carry out another population survey due to expense and stolen equipment, means we do not know how many vaquitas are left. 

Hope for vaquitas 

During the VaquitaCPR project, scientists retrieved living tissue from the captured vaquita. They were then able to sequence the full genome which shows vaquitas have been naturally rare for about 250,000 years. This has caused vaquitas to have low genetic diversity which makes them less vulnerable to inbreeding depression. Thus, living in a small population for a long period may have allowed them to purge harmful mutations in their genetic load that might have resulted in health problems. 

This is good news for the vaquita. Despite their dangerously low population, the species can breed safely within its small group without passing on dangerous genetic traits to offspring. “I really think that that's cause for optimism. If you stop killing them these animals can reproduce and can come back. Albeit slowly.” said Dr Barbara Taylor. 

This year, Mexican authorities placed new restrictions on fishers operating in the Upper Gulf of California, establishing a Zero Tolerance Area in the vaquita refuge and banning all gillnets. These restrictions came after the USA announced an embargo on all seafood caught with gillnets in the Upper Gulf. The impact of these restrictions is difficult to measure as poachers will continue to ignore bans.   

“If you keep approaching the crime problem as a conservation problem, you're bound to fail because you're coming up with the wrong tools and the wrong people.” said Andrea Crosta. His organisation, Earth League International, targets the eco-trafficker's criminal network. Only by identifying and stopping members in the supply chain, can the business of totoaba poaching be stopped.   

Unfortunately for the vaquita, its existence hinges on the proper management of complex issues – organised crime and corruption in Mexico and China’s demand for rare and exotic species.   

The totoaba fishing season begins each year in November and ends in March. These months represent the most dangerous time for the vaquita. 


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