WASHINGTON, D.C. | July 5th, 2018—A group rallied outside the Embassy of Mexico on Thursday morning, urging the Mexican government to protect the vaquita, a porpoise native to the country’s waters. Representatives from the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), and other concerned persons braved the blistering summer weather and joined forces to shed light on the rapidly declining population of the rare porpoise. Signs with phrases such as SAVE THE VAQUITA and FEWER THAN 30 LEFT, written in both Spanish and English, were held by the group, who wore shirts reading “Extinction is Forever.” Some members of the rally took to the street with signs raised above their heads, trying to grab the attention of passing cars.

An illustration of the vaquita porpoise.

The vaquita, which means “little cow” in Spanish, is the world’s smallest porpoise and is only found in the shallow waters of the upper Gulf of California, in a tiny fragment of water between Baja California and Mexico’s mainland. It is the most endangered of the 128 marine mammals alive in the world today. The vaquita has been threatened by the illegal fishing of another marine animal—the endangered totoaba fish. The totoaba is in high demand for its bladder, a status symbol and unproven medicinal supplement in Asia. Dubbed ‘aquatic cocaine’ in China, the bladder of the totoaba fish is sold for thousands of dollars on the black market. Overfishing of the totoaba is the leading threat to the decline of the vaquita population. The porpoise gets caught in gillnets used to catch the totoaba fish and other marine life such as shrimp, and then suffocates and drowns when it becomes entangled.

Protestors at Thursday’s rally in Washington, D.C.

Thursday morning’s demonstration was held in conjunction with Saturday’s International Save the Vaquita Day, which falls annually on the first Saturday after the Fourth of July. The AWI, NRDC, and CBD have been pushing both the American and Mexican governments to pass legislation to protect the vaquita. The conservation groups sued the Trump administration this year for failing to ban seafood imports caught with gillnets. They demanded court intervention and called for an immediate ban on Mexican seafood imports from the upper Gulf of California.

In 2015, Mexico took action and banned the use of gillnet fishing for two years. However, rampant use of the fishing tactics prior to the implementation of the new laws and difficulty enforcing the rules prevented the species from recovering. In 2017, gillnets were permanently banned in the vaquita’s habitat, but the move was easily side-stepped by totoaba fishermen. The fishermen found that covering up their gillnets with legal corvina nets could help them continue to get away with their illegal and lucrative practices.

The illegal fishing activity in the Gulf of California is not just affecting marine life—fishermen feel their livelihoods are being threatened as well. A 2014 report from the Comité Internacional para la Recuperación de la vaquita (CIRVA) finds that “fishermen who wish to comply with regulations feel they are being undercut when illegal fishermen operate without constraints or punishment.”

A dried totoaba bladder.

The lack of both Mexican and American law enforcement has enabled both the overfishing of the totoaba and the precipitous drop in the vaquita population. There is still no clear plan for conservation in sight.

The activation of whistleblowers will be key to halting the vaquita extinction crisis. Law-abiding fishermen, who are regularly exposed to the illegal activities occurring in their waters, have no safe and effective way to report crimes to local authorities. There must be a way for them to report anonymously and confidentially as whistleblowers.

Two U.S. laws, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) and the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships (APPS), have both been highly effective in detecting crime and enforcing laws internationally, especially given their whistleblower reward provisions. By providing rewards, even for non-U.S. citizens, the U.S. has been able to incentivize those with information to come forward and to better enforce cases of bribery and ocean pollution. These laws, among other U.S. whistleblower laws, could be applied to halting reporting fishing crimes in the Gulf of California.

With fewer than 30 individuals believed to remain in the wild, extinction of the vaquita could be as soon as this year without immediate, effective action.