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Reports from HPR's Dave Lawrence

Vaquita Porpoise, Totoaba Fish Both Facing Existential Threat From Chinese Consumers


It's grim news for a tiny porpoise being inadvertently caught by poachers feeding a huge Chinese demand for another fish’s swim bladder, conservationists said today, with under two dozen of the little creatures left alive, and the AP reported if not for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, the extinction would be here already.

Experts said today only 22 Vaquita porpoises remain in the Gulf of California, where an increasingly violent battle is playing out, fueled by demand in China. Chinese businessmen and consumers are exploiting Mexican fishermen over the Totoaba fish. Illegal to catch, its swim bladder is consumed only in China, according to conservationists Elephant Action League, who went undercover for over a year to expose the smuggling chain of custody. They explained to HPR in 2018 that all the Totoaba swim bladders are exported to China. Sadly, the tiny Vaquita porpoise is being caught in the process, along with tens of thousands of other animals in indiscriminate gill nets: seals, turtles, sharks, rays and many other unsuspecting animals.

In this screen shot from a Sea Shepherd video, their crew free a living Totoaba fish from a gill net. Each evening their crews use sonar to locate the nets, then pull them onto their ships. The Sea Shepherd crew works to rapidly and carefully cut any living animals out of the net. Many living Totoaba and other creatures are being saved. This lucky Totoaba fish was one of them. It was returned to the ocean and swam away.

The AP quoted Jorge Urban, a biology professor at the Baja California Sur University, who said the 22 Vaquitas were heard over a network of acoustic monitors. It may be a sign the Vaquita is holding on, and what is keeping it alive, the AP reported, are the Sea Shepherd volunteers. Every night, volunteer crew members from ships operated by Sea Shepherd Conservation Society search for gill nets, which fishermen leave unattended and then the Sea Shepherds methodically remove the nets. In the process they save still-alive animals entangled in the nets, and document those killed.">They have many inspiring videos of their volunteers rescuing animals on the edge of death, trapped in the gill nets, until the Sea Shepherd crew rescues them. This is an example.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is working alongside the Mexican Navy to stop the illegal gill net fishing that is driven by Chinese businessmen in Mexico, feeding demand for the Totoaba fish's swim bladder. Operation Milagro is the name of the mission, now into it's fifth year. Sea Shepherd crews have saved thousands of marine animals caught in the gill nets and documented the killings of those they were unable to save.

It is increasingly dangerous work. Over the last month, Sea Shepherd ships have suffered two attacks in which dozens of fast fishing boats pounded the ship with rocks and firebombs. The Sea Shepherd vessels have Mexican Marines and Police onboard, and they fired rubber bullets in the most recent attacks, but they’ve been intimidated by the fishermen, said documentary filmmaker Richard Ladkani, who directed "Sea of Shadows," a new film on the crisis. He claimed Mexican Marines stood by while fishermen attacked previously, and asked "Why is the navy not using force?" Investigator Andrea Crosta of the group Elephant Action League did have some good news: Totoaba prices appear to be falling; he called that "the first good news for the Vaquita in a long, long time." He attributed that to his group's work in identifying illegal traders in Baja California's Chinese community, noting that the Chinese government recently arrested 16 Chinese citizens who were traders of Totoaba swim bladders.

In the meantime, the Sea Shepherd goes each night and hauls in nets, sometimes as many as 15 per night.  The totoaba swim bladders bring tens of thousands of dollars apiece in China. Chinese consumers drive extinction crises that are wiping out elephants, rhinos, tigers, pangolins, jaguars and numerous other species.

Sea of Shadows is a new documentary coming soon about the plight of the Totoaba fish and Vaquita porpoise, both being wiped out by Chinese consumers and traders who are exploiting impoverished Mexican fishermen. In the process, tens of thousands of other unintended animals are being killed. National Geographic will be making the film available in the coming months.

Find more stories and interviews from Dave Lawrence.  

Dave Lawrence is the local host of All Things Considered, Road Stories (formerly Off the Road), and Stargazer.
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