Vaquita — the World's Smallest and Most Endangered Cetaceans (Whales, Dolphins, Porpoises)

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Vaquitas (Scientific name: Phocoena sinus) are the world’s smallest porpoises and one of the world's most endangered animals. Less than 30 vaquitas remain in the wild, and and they all live in the northern reaches of the Gulf of California, Mexico. The population of the species is falling at an alarming rate mainly because of accidental entanglement in gillnets and other fishing gear. The animal’s slow maturation and low birthrate compound the problem. It is considered likley that they will become extinct. [Source: NOAA; Robert L. Pitman and Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, Natural History magazine, July -August 2007]

Vaquitas are shy members of the porpoise family. The are the smallest Cetaceans (whale, dolphins and porpoises). The only sea mammals that are smaller are sea otters. Vaquitas were first recognized as a new species in 1958, on the basis of three skulls found on beaches in the northern Gulf of California. A quarter century passed before a live animal was scientifically documented, and only in 1985 were its external features first described by biologists. Nick Pyenson wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “The vaquita is a child of the ice ages, according to the story written in its DNA. There are six porpoise species all around the world, and the family trees that can be constructed from particular gene sequences suggest that the vaquita split from other Pacific Ocean porpoises in the past five million years — which includes the start of the ice ages. The vaquita’s limited range in the Gulf of California seems typical of a species that evolved in response to the retreat of northern glaciers (cool waters out, warm waters in), which isolated the species in this now-altered habitat, known as a refugium. [Source: Nick Pyenson, Smithsonian magazine, November 2017]

Little is known about the vaquita's biology or life history. Because the animal is shy as well as rare, it has not readily disclosed its secrets. But what little is known does not bode well for its future. The normal lifespan is probably twenty years or more. It reaches sexual maturity between three and six years of age, and females apparently give birth to a single calf every other year. It typically travels alone or in mother-and-calf pairs. A recent study determined that the species has little or no genetic diversity; it may have passed through a population bottleneck at some time in its past, or evolved from a small founder population. The combination of low numbers, late maturity, low birth rate, and low genetic diversity makes the vaquita vulnerable to extinction, even without such strong pressure from people. Their lifespan is About 20 years.

Robert L. Pitman and Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho wrote in Natural History magazine, Its black lips set off a haunting little smile: Mona Lisa with black lipstick. But the vaquita has no reason to smile... Gill nets — nearly invisible fishing nets set in the water like curtains and often left unattended — are the single greatest cause of vaquita mortality each year. Vaquitas become entangled and drown when they swim into the nets by accident; or they might be lured there by fish that are already stuck. Vaquitas aren’t the intended targets of any fishery; they’re merely the bycatch of local fishermen trying to earn a living — collateral damage..

Websites and Resources: Britain-based Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society ; Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Fishbase; Encyclopedia of Life; Smithsonian Oceans Portal ; Monterey Bay Aquarium ; MarineBio

Small Range of the Vaquita

Vaquita range

Vaquitas have the smallest range of any whale, dolphin, or porpoise. They only lives in the northern part of the Gulf of California in Mexico. The gulf, also called the Sea of Cortez, is a 1,600-kilometer (1,000-mile) -long spear of ocean wedged between the mainland of northwestern Mexico and Baja California. Most vaquitas live east of the town of San Felipe, Baja California, within a 3,935 square-kilometer (1,519-square-mile) area that is less than one-fourth the size of metropolitan Los Angeles. This area also includes the Delta of the Colorado River Biosphere Reserve, one of the earth’s most diverse marine habitats. The delta includes many types of fish, birds, marine reptiles, and marine mammals. [Source: NOAA]

Vaquitas are generally found only in shallow water, close to shore. The area where they live is an area that is rich in fish and shrimp. Fishing is thus a major source of income for the people there, who almost exclusively use gillnets, but vaquitas can also become accidentally wrapped in the nets and drown. [Source: NOAA]

Vaquita are the only species of porpoise that is found in very warm waters. Most phocoenids are restricted to water cooler than 20º C (68ºF). Vaquitas are unique in their ability to tolerate large annual fluctuations in temperature (. The Gulf of California may experience temperature ranges from 14º C (57ºF) in January to 36º C (97ºF) in August. This may have an effect on the reproductive seasonality of this species. [Source: Devon Landes, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Robert L. Pitman and Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho wrote in Natural History magazine: "With the vaquita’s population in steady decline, its distribution in the northern gulf has also contracted, Nearly the entire population lives in a region less than 65 kilometers (forty miles) across. To put that into perspective, while on surveys throughout the gulf, we have seen a few dozen vaquitas over the years. But never have we seen one without being able to look up and see Consag Rock, a 300-foot-tall, guano-covered spire in the middle of the northern gulf. [Source: Robert L. Pitman and Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, Natural History magazine, July -August 2007]

Even the vaquita’s scientific name, Phocoena sinus, acknowledges its claustrophobic range. Phocoena is derived from both the Greek and Latin words for “porpoise”; sinus is Latin for “bay” or “pocket,” and refers to the animal’s restricted home waters. (The common name, vaquita, means “little cow” in Spanish — a rather fitting name now that biologists know that all cetaceans are the product of a successful re-invasion of the ocean by terrestrial ungulates.)

Vaquita Characteristics

Vaquita size
Vaquitas have torpedo-shaped bodies that less than 1.5 meters (five feet) from snout to taill. Robert L. Pitman and Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho wrote in Natural History magazine, “calves are just twenty-eight inches long at birth, the size of a large loaf of bread. From a distance, the vaquita appears drab gray with a lighter belly, but at close range some intriguing details in the paint job emerge. A black stripe runs forward from each flipper to the middle of the lower lip, so the animal appears to be holding its own bridle. It has a black, circular patch around each eye. [Source: Robert L. Pitman and Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, Natural History magazine, July -August 2007]

Vaquitas are one of the smallest members of the dolphin, whale, and porpoise family. Females are longer and heavier than males, but males have larger fins. These dolphins range in weight from 30 to 55 kilograms (66 to 121 pounds) and are 1.2 to 1.5 meters (4 to 5 feet) in length. At birth their average length is 0.6-0.7 meters. Juveniles also have white spots on their dorsal fins. Vaquitas are endothermic (use their metabolism to generate heat and regulate body temperature independent of the temperatures around them) and homoiothermic (warm-blooded, having a constant body temperature, usually higher than the temperature of their surroundings).

Vaquitas have small, strong bodies with a rounded head and no beak. They have black patches around their eyes and lips and small, spade-shaped teeth. Vaquitas also have triangle-shaped dorsal fins in the middle of their backs, which are taller and wider than in other porpoises. These fins might allow vaquitas to reduce their body temperatures in warm water. Vaquita backs are dark gray, while their bellies are a lighter gray. [Source: NOAA]

Vaquitas have between 34-40 teeth which are unicuspid, or "acorn like" and a blunted rostral profile. Vaquitas are physically similar to the Harbor Porpoise in many ways with the vaquita being more slender. This has been explained in terms of their warmer habitat. A slender body increases surface area/volume ratio thus increasing heat dissipation in a warm environment. This explanation has also been used to explain the occurrence of larger appendages within this species. [Source: Devon Landes, Animal Diversity Web (ADW)]

Vaquita are members of the genus Phocoena, sometimes referred to as common porpoises along with harbour porpoises, spectacled porpoises and Burmeister's porpoises. Compared to other species, vaquitas have larger dorsal fins, flippers, and flukes . Additionally they have large arteriole vessels with a plexus of thin walled veins. These characteristics could be adaptations to the extreme temperatures in the waters of the Upper Gulf of California. [Source: Ayaka Paul, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Vaquita Behavior, Feeding and Reproduction


Vaquitas are often found alone or in pairs. When they breathe at the surface they roll forward quickly, hardly making a splash. These shy animals usually avoid boats with active engines. They are difficult to observe because of their small size, inconspicuous and slow surface rolls, small group size, and avoidance of motorized vessels. Vaquitas use sonar as a means of communicating and navigating through its habitat.[Source: Devon Landes, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Vaquitas feed on small fish, crustaceans (such as shrimp), and cephalopods (such as squid and octopuses), which are found near the surface of the water. In several individuals the remains of Gulf croakers were found. The 4000 square kilometer area where vaquita live is incredibly turbid but rich in bottom-dwelling fish, squid, and crustaceans. Likely the use echolocation to find prey as well as navigate around. Much of their social organization is unknown. They are often seen in pairs on the few occasions they are seen. Groups with eight or 10 individuals have been reported .

Vaquitas are viviparous, meaning they give birth to live young that developed in the body of the mother, and engage in seasonal breeding. The Breeding season is from mid-April to May, with the average number of offspring being one. The average gestation period is 10.6 months. The average weaning age is 12 months. Females and males reach sexual maturity at three to six years. [Source: Devon Landes, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Vaquita females are thought to give birth every other year to a single calf that is about 0.8 meters (2.5 feet) long and 7,2 kilograms (16 pounds). Females usually give birth between February and April. Size may help to distinguish mature from immature individuals for both sexes. Vaquitas are usually solitary and thought to be polygynous (males having more than one female as a mate at one time).

Endangered Vaquita

Vaquitas are one of the world’s most endangered animals. They are classified as “Critically Endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) lists them in Appendix I, which lists species that are the most endangered among CITES-listed animals and plants.

Studies estimated there may be as few as eight vaquitas remaining in the Gulf of California (2023). DNA from skin samples of dead vaquita bycatch show little genetic diversity. A lack genetic variation means a species has less resilience to disease and other threats. [Source: Nick Pyenson, Smithsonian magazine, November 2017; Mark Stevenson, Associated Press, March 4, 2023]

pair of vaquita

Although we know that the vaquita population has been decreasing since the first full abundance estimate in 1997, it is likely that the population has been decreasing since gillnets started being used in the 1940s. Between 1997 and 2008, vaquitas decreased at about 8 percent per year, a figure consistent with the estimated decline that would result from the amount of gillnetting for shrimp and finfish. Acoustic monitoring between 2011 and 2016 recorded an increased rate of decline to about 40 percent per year. The estimated number remaining in November 2016 was about 30 individuals, making vaquitas the most endangered marine mammal in the world. [Source: NOAA]

Robert L. Pitman and Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho wrote in Natural History magazine: At a forum convened in San Diego in 2007 to address the fate of the vanishing vaquita, the organizers displayed a gallery of nearly every known photograph of the species. Most showed a dead animal swaddled in gill net in the bottom of a fishing boat, that innocent smile frozen on its face in death as in life. There were only a couple of photographs of live animals, and they were no more than blurred images of a head or a dorsal fin hastily rolling out of sight in the distance. We were struck that a large mammal living in our time could be driven off the planet forever, and leave behind such a scant record that it was ever here. [Source: Robert L. Pitman and Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, Natural History magazine, July -August 2007]

The best estimate of the world’s vaquita population to date comes from a 1997 shipboard survey of the vaquita’s known range, which was conducted by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service in collaboration with Mexican investigators. From the survey data, Armando Jaramillo-Legorreta, a Ph.D. candidate in oceanography at the Autonomous University of Baja California in Ensenada, and several of his colleagues estimated the vaquita population at 567 individuals. To determine whether the population is growing, declining, or holding steady, one must know, among other things, its mortality from both natural and human causes. The latter is essentially the number of animals that die in nets every year, and that critical piece of information was supplied by Caterina D’Agrosa, now a postdoctoral fellow at Arizona State University in Tempe. Between January 1993 and January 1995, as part of her master’s thesis, D’Agrosa had interviewed fishermen and placed observers aboard fishing boats, primarily in El Golfo de Santa Clara, one of the three main fishing communities in the northern gulf. Extrapolating from her sample, she estimated that seventy-eight vaquitas were being killed annually, an overall population decline of about 10 percent per year. At that rate, a population of 567 individuals in 1997 would have plummeted to about 200 by" 2007.

Main Threat to Vaquitas — Gillnets

The only known threat to the vaquita is getting caught in fishing gear, especially gillnets. Once scientists recognized the vaquita as a species, they also realized that small-scale and commercial fisheries were accidentally catching vaquitas. From the mid-1930s to the mid-1970s, the gillnet fishery for totoaba severely overfished vaquita. Even after this fishery closed in 1975, many vaquitas continued to die in illegal totoaba nets and gillnets set for shrimp and fish. [Source: NOAA **]


Totoaba is a species of marine fish — a very large member of the drum family that resembles sea bass. Because totoaba and vaquita are similar in size, gillnets set for totoaba are the deadliest for vaquitas. Fishermen illegally catch totoaba for its swim bladder (an air-filled sac in the fish's body that helps it float), In China, the swim bladders are used in soup with purported medicinal value. Thousands of swim bladders are dried and smuggled out of Mexico — sometimes through the United States. Nick Pyenson wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “The totoabais at the center of a highly lucrative black market trade. A single totoaba swim bladder, when stretched and dried, fetches thousands of dollars in Asia. A global supply chain for the bladders, likely linked to criminal enterprise, feeds demand for the tissue, which has only increased as the totoaba itself has become endangered. [Source: Nick Pyenson, Smithsonian magazine, November 2017]

A study dedicated to estimating the mortality rate of vaquitas from gillnets demonstrated that vaquitas die in every type of gillnet. The highest rate was in totoaba nets, but for many years the numbers of totoaba and totoaba nets were so low that the highest numbers of vaquita deaths were inferred to come from the much more common gillnets set for shrimp. The rate of decline between 1997 and 2008 — derived from both visual and acoustic monitoring — is consistent with the level of fishing in this period without inferring any other threat to the species. Illegal fishing for totoaba has significantly increased since about 2011 due to Chinese demand for its swim bladder. Fishermen can earn up to $8,500 for each kilogram of totoaba swim bladder. This amount is equal to a large percent of a year’s pay from legal fishing. **

NOAA Fisheries and its partners have examined other potential threats to vaquitas, which have all been dismissed. People often cite the lack of Colorado River flow, which could potentially decrease vaquitas’ food supply, as a threat. But no vaquitas that were examined after being killed in gillnets showed any signs of malnutrition that might be expected if habitat issues were causing the decline. Vaquitas also have among the lowest levels of pollutants in their habitat, and although they show low genetic diversity, the cause of the low diversity is consistent with a naturally rare species. Finally, most of the vaquitas recovered from gillnets were young and had no apparent health issues that might indicate inbreeding depression.

Another more indirect threat is the Mexican drug cartels. Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution Center for Security, Strategy and Technology, and Kristin Nowell, executive director of the conservation group Cetacean Action Treasury, have addressed a core driver of the vaquita’s decline — rising activity by Mexico’s drug cartels around San Felipe, the town where most of the illegal fishing is centered. They wrote: In 2021, six fishermen were gunned down in broad daylight, unprecedented coordinated assassinations linked to the sons of drug kingpin El Chapo and the Sinaloa cartel... If the U.S. takes action quickly to help Mexico get things right on the vaquita, progress could also be made not just on averting a species’ extinction but also on rebuilding the anti-crime partnership important for U.S. security.” [Source: Andrew Revkin, Columbia Climate School on his new Sustain What dispatch at, August 3, 2021]

Efforts to Save the Vaquita

range of Totoaba

Scientists agree that for vaquitas to survive in the wild, gillnet fishing must end within vaquita habitat. Mexico is responding to this crisis and breaking new ground in conservation activities. The Mexican government has worked with scientists, nongovernmental agencies, and foundations to ban most gillnets. Unfortunately, their actions did not stop the population decline. In April 2015, President Peña Nieto traveled to San Felipe, one of the main fishing towns off the Gulf of California, to announce a 2-year emergency gillnet ban throughout vaquita habitat. The President also announced that the government would pay fishermen for their loss of income. In September 2015, the Mexican government conducted a survey of the vaquita population using both ship-based monitoring and sound-based detectors throughout vaquita habitat. In July 2017, a federal agreement permanently banned all gillnets except those used for fishing two species: curvina and sierra. The effect of this ban on the decline of vaquitas remains to be seen. [Source: NOAA]

Nick Pyenson wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “The options for rescuing this enigmatic mammal are dwindling fast. One possibility is to capture some females and males and place them in floating sea pens, or within a cordoned refuge. But the stress of captivity can be hard on porpoises, and it’s far from clear whether any vaquita could even be secured in the first place — not one ever has. Another idea is to use U.S. Navy-trained bottlenose dolphins to wrangle vaquita into sea refuges, but that’s also a gamble — trained dolphins have never done so before. The obvious step of ridding the gulf of gill nets requires a level of law enforcement that has apparently not been achieved, perhaps because of criminal influence on the totoaba trade. The vaquita’s newly visible champions on social media, including the actor Leonardo DiCaprio and the billionaire Mexican philanthropist Carlos Slim, have raised the animal’s profile and amplified existing work by nonprofit conservation groups and government organizations in the United States and Mexico. Unfortunately, even the impressive speed of tweets and internet petitions may not be enough — we may have just months to save this species. [Source: Nick Pyenson, Smithsonian magazine, November 2017]

Robert L. Pitman and Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho wrote in Natural History magazine: In 1993, as a result of public and scientific outcry about its fate, the Mexican government created the Upper Gulf of California and Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve. Within the reserve, gill nets are prohibited. At the time, the reserve was thought to include most of the vaquita’s marine habitat, but after two shipboard surveys, in 1993 and 1997, it became clear that as much as half of the population was actually living south of the reserve boundary. Consequently, in December 2005 the Mexican government designated a vaquita refuge, which overlaps part of the biosphere reserve and includes an area where some 80 percent of recent vaquita sightings have been made. [Source: Robert L. Pitman and Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, Natural History magazine, July -August 2007]

Vaquita conservation, of course, raises thorny ethical and sociological issues. The people who live along the desert shores eke out a tenuous living by fishing in the same waters as the vaquita. They simply want to keep their families fed and improve their lot. The tragedy is that their poverty and their struggles will continue long after the last vaquita loses its own final struggle in a ball of monofilament net...It is all too easy to imagine the end of the vaquita: An exasperated fisherman wrestles with an entangled carcass under the blazing Mexican sun. He finally extricates it from the net and dumps it unceremoniously over the side of his panga — his small, open fishing boat. As the last vaquita sinks out of sight, the last human being ever to see one goes back to pulling his net. We need to take care of this fisherman if we want to take care of the vaquita.

Obstacles to Saving Vaquitas

Robert L. Pitman and Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho wrote in Natural History magazine: In spite of the good intentions reflected by the creation of those protected areas, harmful fishing practices have continued virtually unchecked. A 2006 review concluded that there has been little or no change either inside or outside the biosphere reserve since its creation. When we visited the vaquita refuge in March 2006, we found unattended gill nets set right in the middle of it. One of us (Rojas-Bracho) recently launched a series of aerial surveys, which will provide a far better appraisal of fishing activity throughout the region than has so far been possible. But because the boundaries of the reserve and the refuge are not marked, and because there is little enforcement of the no-gill-netting rule, poor results seem all but inevitable. [Source: Robert L. Pitman and Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, Natural History magazine, July -August 2007]

““For many of the local community the vaquita is a nuisance that the sooner it goes extinct the better, because then they can poach unhampered,” Felbab-Brown told The Guardian. She noted that these issues have existed in the Gulf of California for decades, predating the spike in overseas demand for totoaba, and highlights the “enormous challenge” inherent in environmental conservation. “The issue of how to fund conservation — paying communities not to poach — is something that we are really going to be confronting at a greater scale,” she said. “Vaquitas have never been particularly abundant. They tend to produce calves only once every two years and it takes decades for them to mature and reproduce. But Felbab-Brown says that the absence of law enforcement in the area has only exacerbated the issue. “The sense is that anything goes,” she said. “Now in a situation where we have 7 or 8 vaquitas left.” [Source: Gabrielle Canon, The Guardian, February 12, 2022]

““The reason it really is not working is there isn’t the governance to enforce another way of fishing and to support and compensate fishers who fish in a way that would allow vaquita to survive,” Francis Gulland, Commissioner at the US Marine Mammal Commission, told The Guardian, adding that working to get buy-in from the community is a far more effective strategy than attempting to enforce top-down bans. It’s a lesson she hopes can be learned in time to spare other species, which could soon also be subject to precipitous decline.

““We tend to not pay attention until we are in total crisis mode,” she says, noting that conservation efforts didn’t really start until there were just a few hundred vaquitas left. When the population fell further, advocates attempted to catch vaquitas to relocate them to protected areas, but the program was promptly stopped after it resulted in one vaquita’s death. “If there had been 10 thousand animals we would have time to learn what to do to improve the techniques,” Gulland said. “They could have been moved to a protected area but it was all too late.”

Hope for Vaquitas?

Andrew Revkin, a professor at Columbia University, wrote: A blitz of illicit fishing in recent years turned a rapid 20-year decline in numbers into a shocking free fall, leaving fewer than 10 vaquitas alive today, including several mothers with calves, according to the latest expert estimates. The situation worsened in mid July 2021 when the administration of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador outraged conservationists and scientists by announcing the relaxation of Mexico’s protections for what had been a critical “zero tolerance” no-fishing zone at the heart of the species’ tiny refuge. Given the unrelenting Chinese totoaba trade and the power of Mexican cartels, it would be easy to write off the loss of the last few vaquitas as just another tragic and infuriating data point in the long slide toward a mass “sixth extinction” — the still-unfolding human disruption of global biological diversity...I was prepared to concede game over and say the conservation community should turn its attention, and limited resources, elsewhere. [Source: Andrew Revkin, Columbia Climate School on his new Sustain What dispatch at, August 3, 2021]

But several interviews with seasoned experts in recent days shifted my view, particularly because there’s something the public can do right now to help while the wheels of international diplomacy and trade law spin... Particularly convincing was Barbara Taylor, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration senior scientist who’s been involved for years in vaquita monitoring expeditions, analysis and research using an array of acoustic listening devices to assess the population’s size and dynamics.

Four reasons for hope 1) The survivors are wily and elusive, she said, with their scars and behavior showing they are aware of the risk nets pose. 2) The estimated presence of three calves — all fat and healthy in 2019 — showed that the remaining females are prolific breeders. 3) Recent analysis of the vaquita genome shows they are unlikely to face a genetic bottleneck that sometimes threatens the recovery of deeply depleted species. 4) Finally, Taylor said, there are other examples of species, including marine mammals, reviving extraordinarily well from tiny numbers after devastating slaughter. She is particularly heartened by the saga of the northern elephant seal, which was declared extinct in 1884. A tiny population was discovered on an island off Mexico’s Pacific coast. Now there are 300,000. Many last-chance species, like the California condor, had to be taken into captivity to recover, and that failed with the vaquita. But for other species, all it takes, Taylor said, is “stopping killing them.”

Pressure on Mexico To Save Vaquitas From Extinction

Mexico announced in March 2023, that it is was seeking to avoid potential trade sanctions for failing to stop the near-extinction of the vaquita. Associated Press reported: The government submitted a protection plan to CITES, which had rejected an earlier version. It lists establishing “alternative fishing techniques” to gillnet fishing as one its top priorities. In reality, the government’s protection efforts have been uneven. The administration of President Andrés Manuel López has largely refused to spend money to compensate fishermen for staying out of the vaquita refuge and to stop using gill nets. The nets are set illegally to catch totoaba, a fish whose swim bladders are a delicacy in China worth thousands of dollars per pound. [Source: Mark Stevenson, Associated Press, March 4, 2023]

The activist group Sea Shepherd, which has joined the Mexican Navy in patrols to deter the fishermen and to help destroy gill nets, says the efforts have successfully reduced the gillnet fishing. But the Mexican government has not spent the money needed to train and compensate fishermen for using alternate fishing techniques such as nets or lines that won’t trap vaquitas.

Sea Shepherd has for years posted ships in the Gulf of California to try to discourage the illegal fishing and remove abandoned “ghost nets” that keep trapping vaquitas. Sea Shepherd says its joint efforts with the Mexican Navy — which have sunk about 193 concrete blocks onto the bottom of the Gulf to snag illegal nets in the reserve area — has resulted in a 79 percent reduction in the amount of time small boats spent illegally fishing in the protected area. It dropped from 449 hours between Oct. 10 and Dec. 5 2021, to 164 hours in the same period of 2022.But that’s still a lot of fishing time spent in an area that’s supposed to be totally off-limits.

In 2020, the Mexican government publicized efforts to crack down on what it called “The Cartel of the Sea,” arresting a fisherman named Sunshine Rodriguez and accusing him of being the leader of an a crime ring that trafficked in totoaba swim bladders. But prosecutors lacked evidence, and Rodriguez — who denied trading in fish swim bladders — was acquitted of the charges against him in February after spending 2 years and 3 months locked up. The time awaiting trial did have one effect: Rodríguez now says “I’m not going to be involved in the negotiations” between fishermen and the government, adding “Sunshine Rodríguez is standing down.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, NOAA

Text Sources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Wikipedia, National Geographic, Live Science, BBC, Smithsonian, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.

Last Updated June 2023

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