Op-Ed: How cracking down on organized crime could save a tiny porpoise from extinction

The vaquita porpoise
The vaquita, nicknamed the “panda of the sea” for its black-rimmed eyes and mouth, is nearly extinct. Fewer than 15 are believed to exist.
(National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Why should you care about the vaquita, a tiny porpoise you have probably never seen, living in a sea you may have never touched, with a fate tied to a fish you likely didn’t know existed?

Because the vaquita is a powerful symbol of what we are losing on our planet. If we can’t save this smallest and most endangered porpoise on earth, what hope is there for rhinos, tigers or elephants? Unless governments and societies the world over get much more involved in saving endangered creatures, we will be destined to live in a terribly quiet world with nothing wild.

The vaquita is on the brink of extinction. Fewer than 15 are believed to exist, all in the Sea of Cortez, the gulf separating Baja California from mainland Mexico. As the giant sea-bass totoabas are poached, vaquitas — nicknamed “pandas of the sea” for their black-rimmed eyes and mouth — are caught as bycatch in massive commercial fishing nets and die.

The drop in vaquita numbers from almost 570 in 1997 to a fraction of that today is directly linked to organized crime, which drives the trafficking in totoaba swim bladders with complete disregard for the destruction it leaves behind. A single bladder can fetch up to $100,000 in China. There are millions to be made off of them, which makes the trade almost unstoppable without the implementation of radical measures.


It is not like the Mexican authorities haven’t tried. They declared the vaquita habitat a natural reserve, imposed a fishing ban, helped fund the VaquitaCPR rescue program, made the use of gill nets illegal and started a compensation program for fishermen barred from going out to sea. None of this has been able to stop the killing spree.

The chaos began after the Chinese hunted the bahaba, a giant sea bass in nearby waters to the brink of extinction about a decade ago. As they searched for a replacement, they found it nearly 8,000 miles away in the totoaba, inhabiting an incredibly beautiful ecosystem that undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau once described as the “the aquarium of the world.”

After the Chinese mafia of Tijuana joined forces with the Mexican drug cartels, the brutal hunt began for the totoaba, nicknamed “the cocaine of the sea.” Both the vaquita and the totoaba are listed as critically endangered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

To catch the totoaba, fishermen are lured into illegality by the prospect of riches and later extorted by the cartels. They drop thousands of gill nets into the sea, anchoring them to the ocean floor, creating walls of death. In addition to annihilating the totoaba, the nets snare turtles, sharks, sea lions, birds, even whales. The vaquita is the most endangered victim of this slaughter.

The laws to protect the marine environment in the Sea of Cortez are weakly enforced. Illegal fishing is still widely viewed in Mexico as a petty crime and widespread corruption enables it, especially among the military and police. Mexico’s new government under President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has shown little interest in environmental issues, even halting a program that provided monetary compensation to fisherman barred from all fishing within the vaquita refuge — driving more of them into working illegally with the cartels.

If more isn’t done, this enchanting and unique ecosystem three hours south of the U.S.-Mexico border will be lost forever, along with the vaquita and the totoaba. To prevent this, the local fishermen cannot be sidelined without viable options to provide for their families and the international community — especially the U.S. and China, but most of all Mexico — needs to take a more aggressive stance in cracking down on transnational crime syndicates that are decimating this marine life.


In June, two Chinese nationals were arrested when their vehicle was stopped for speeding in Orange County and they were found transporting totoaba swim bladders worth nearly $4 million. In March, Chinese authorities prosecuted 11 people for smuggling $119 million worth of the bladders. And late last year Chinese customs officials confiscated 980 pounds of bladders estimated to be worth about $26 million.

Of course, there is no second chance when it comes to extinction and time is running out. Yet it is not too late to turn the tide, even for the vaquita. DNA studies by scientists who research the vaquita show that the porpoises can come back, even from very low numbers. All they need is a safe habitat, which means space to roam without any nets.

Employees from nongovernmental organizations such as Earth League International and Sea Shepherd have been working relentlessly to stop the killing and disrupt the criminal totoaba networks, often at the risk of their own lives, but their efforts can only buy time. Government agencies need to step in and resolve the crisis.

The cartels are feasting on profits that rival the drug trade’s, yet they encounter little to no resistance. Until making money off of stalking and killing marine animals is recognized for what it is — organized crime — and punished accordingly, the dwindling vaquita and totoaba in the azure waters of the Sea of Cortez won’t stand a chance.

Richard Ladkani’s recently released documentary, “Sea of Shadows,” is about the battle to save the vaquita.