Bycatch Today, Gone Tomorrow

In China, the wealthy will pay thousands of dollars to eat the swim bladder of the totoaba, a marine fish from the Gulf of California in Mexico. When poachers set out to illegally capture this fish, they are also pushing the vaquita, a marine mammal caught as bycatch, toward extinction. This recent New York Times article by Elisabeth Malkin highlights that the impact of the illegal wildlife trade resonates beyond the traded species.

Only found in the northern California Gulf waters, the vaquita is the smallest species of Cetacea, the order that includes whales, dolphins and porpoises. Poachers cast gillnets for totoaba and accidentally also capture the vaquita. After conservationists pleaded with the Mexican Government for protection, the Mexican Navy was charged with monitoring the waters. However, even with increased legislation and resources, the numbers of the vaquita population have continued to decrease at an alarming rate. Surveys in November indicated only 30 vaquita remain, which is half the amount from a year ago.

Extinction for this species is almost certain unless conservationists can act quickly.

One proposed solution includes captivity until the poaching threat subsides, but many are wary considering the lack of information about how the species would react. Even if a move to captivity went smoothly, vaquitas only give birth to one calf every two years, which is not a promising rate to restore a population. People also worry that the poaching issue will never be solved as long as punishments remain soft and authorities do not respond swiftly. If the population could recover, it would be the first time a marine mammal was brought back due to direct human involvement.

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