Experts fear end of vaquitas after green light for export of captive-bred totoaba fish

Experts fear end of vaquitas after green light for export of captive-bred totoaba fish

International wildlife trade regulator CITES recently decided to allow an aquaculture company in Mexico to export captive-raised totoabas, a large fish categorized as being in danger of extinction under Mexican law.

The fishing and international trade of the totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi) have been prohibited for more than 40 years, yet illegal fishing for it persists in the Upper Gulf of California. The swim bladders of totoabas are coveted in Asian markets, where they fetch exorbitant prices because of their value as status symbols and their supposed medicinal properties.

This illegal activity has not only harmed wild totoaba populations, but it has also pushed vaquita porpoises (Phocoena sinus) to the brink of extinction because they become trapped in fishing nets set for totoabas. With an estimated eight individuals left on the planet, the vaquita is considered the most threatened marine mammal in the world.

Some experts fear the March 10 decision by the CITES Standing Committee to allow Earth Ocean Farms to sell totoabas internationally will increase demand for this species, further encouraging illegal fishing and intensifying pressure on the vaquita.

The argument for allowing the international trade in captive-bred totoabas rests on CITES guidelines that say “the second generation raised in captivity of an endangered species can be traded,” according to Alejandro Olivera, a senior scientist and Mexico representative at the Arizona-based environmental group Center for Biological Diversity.

Lead Image: A dead vaquita floats in the ocean. Image by Robbie Newby for Sea Shepherd.

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