This edition of Animals Anonymous will centre on two marine species, whose plight is closely tied together, though they are part of very different families. They share the same habitat, but the source of the threats to their survival originates from a different part of the world. I'm talking about the Vaquita and the Totoaba.
The Totoaba is a fish which is endemic to the Gulf of California in Mexico and is a critically endangered species. A full-grown Totoaba can measure up to 2 metres long and weigh hundred kilos, and reach a lifespan of 19 years.
They enjoy a seasonal migration to their spawning site at the Colorado River Delta, and will feed on fish and shrimp.
The Vaquita has the dubious honour to be regarded as both the smallest, and most endangered Cetacean in the world. They too are classified as critically endangered, with an estimated population size of 30 individuals, which represents a population drop of 50% in the span of a year.
The Vaquita only occurs in the Gulf of California, where they hunt on Fish, Squids and Crustaceans. They can be found alone or in groups of up to ten individuals.
The manner in which these highly endangered species are tied together is explained superbly in this article
, but I will do my best to summarize the situation.
In many environmental, sad stories, the bad guys
always seem to be the Chinese, and in this case, they are once more the main problem for the survival of these species. In China, the Giant Yellow Croaker was common along their southern coast, whose population became severly depleted after over-harvesting of these species for their swim-bladder. The Totoaba has a similar built, and a similar swim-bladder. As such, they appeared on the radar of Chinese immigrants in America, where its population became severly hunted during the 1940s.
Though the catch of these fish in the Mexican waters at first proved succesful, and large hauls were taken from the sea, this declined rapidly. As a result, younger fish were taken sooner from the sea, limiting the ability for the Totoaba to grow to its ultimate potential.
The government of Mexico acted on the threat to the Totoaba in 1975 by banning its trade, though enforcement has been minimal and illegal fishing has been prevalent throughout the ban. During the economic crisis - which started in 2008 in Mexico and impacted the income from tourism - many people turned to fishing for Totoaba, for which the prices had sky-rocketed in China. However, 5 years later in 2013, prices had dropped significantly due to the huge influx of Totoaba swim-bladders, and border-controls have intensified leading to smugglers having been caught and arrested.
Then how are the Totoaba and Vaquita connected? It all leads back to fishing - the nets used to catch the Totoabas are liable to entangle the Vaquita as well. Vaquitas becoming entangled in gillnets used to catch other seafood had been a known problem for some time, but the flare-up of hunting for Totoaba coincided with a significant drop in population of Vaquitas. Hope for the Vaquita exists somewhat in a two-year ban on the use of gillnets in the Vaquita territory and the creation of a refuge site, but the Cetaceans are slow to reproduce.
The realitfy consists today of a population of 30 Vaquitas, with the ban on gillnets expiring this April, as it had been instated in 2015. The Mexican government has reported interest in a captive breeding programme for the Vaquita, but knowledge about them is notoriously limited, any gamble with their future is liable to lead to their extinction. Many conservationists realize that to tackle the problem, it is important to include local people whose livelihood relies on fishing. Though the Mexican government has funded the withdrawal of dangerous equipment
, more needs to be done to help either species from breeching the threshold form critically endangered towards extinct.
The most frustrating part for the animals as well as parties interested in their survival, is the way the Totoaba and Vaquita situation is reported about. Namely, one-sided. When you keep an eye on the "right"
kind of media, you are now-and-then flooded with headlines like "Demand for fish bladder may wipe out world's rarest ocean mammal
and Chinese taste for fish bladder threatens rare porpoise in Mexico
. Yet a headline such as China's craze for 'aquatic cocaine' is pushing two species into oblivion
acknowledges that the problem does not only affect the world's smallest Porpoise, but also the main target - a large, but cold and somewhat unattractive fish. Either way, the Chinese Giant Yellow Croaker gains not even a small percent of the limelight, yet this is what got the whole cycle started.