The Sea of Cortez or the Gulf of California is one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. Jacques Cousteau, the marine explorer called it the “aquarium of the planet”.
The World’s Smallest cetacean the Vaquita Marina calls the Sea of Cortez home. This small marine mammal’s numbers are so low that it might go extinct in the next few years. According to the latest reports, there may be fewer than 10 vaquitas left. The Vaquita population is dwindling due to the illegal fishing of another critically endangered species: Totoaba (The cocaine of the sea).
The Totoaba is caught for its swim bladder which in China is sold for more than 70,000 USD a Kilo in the black market which is more than the value of Cocaine. The Totoaba swim bladder is highly prized for its unproven medicinal properties. The gillnets used to catch Totoaba end up catching Vaquita and other marine animals as a bycatch. The use of gillnets in various parts of the Sea of Cortez is illegal as per the Mexican government but this measure has proven to be ineffective in its implementation as there are miles of illegal gillnets in the Sea of Cortez that are still used by illegal fishermen and poachers.
Protecting the Vaquita isn’t as easy as it would seem at first as the problem involves organized crime, corruption, violence and poverty. Totoaba cartels and Chinese traders buy Totoaba swim bladders from illegal fishermen for a few thousand dollars. They further smuggle the bladders to mainland China, in turn, making huge profits. The Chinese traders working in Mexico have their links to the Sinaloa cartel ( The largest Drug cartel in Mexico) which makes the crackdown even more difficult. Moreover, the Totoaba cartels and Chinese traders further bribe police officers, the navy, and high-ranking politicians due to which most of the incidents of Totoaba smuggling go unreported. As of now International pressure and condemnation have lead to some progress with regards to arrests of Chinese traders and heads of Totoaba cartels.
In the meantime, only Physical intervention can help to protect the Vaquita Marina as it will only survive if its habitat is free of gillnets. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is working on this principle, till this date they have removed thousands of illegal gillnets from the Sea of Cortez. A group of no more than 30 individuals has saved numerous whales, sharks, seals, dolphins, etc from imminent death because of illegal gillnets. Physical intervention in the Gulf of California has bought the Vaquita some valuable time.
Even though the Vaquita population is dangerously low there is still hope. Early DNA evidence has suggested that the Vaquita population can recover from extremely low numbers but there is a huge if to it as it would only recover if we stop killing it.