The science of sustainable seafood, explained

NGOs Target Wrong Fishery to Save Vaquita Porpoise

The Vaquita Porpoise, a resident of the Sea of Cortez, is near extinction. Recent estimates peg the population of the world’s smallest cetacean at no more than 30 individuals—a sad and unusual story of fishing causing a massive decline in a marine mammal species.

At the Boston Seafood Show, one of the industry’s biggest annual events, a group of over 40 NGOs called for retailers to boycott Mexican shrimp, citing this fishery as the cause of the Vaquita’s demise. The NGOs got it wrong, though, according to the United States Marine Mammal Commission:

The culprit is an illegal gillnet fishery for totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi), a large and endangered fish species also endemic to the northern Gulf of California, which continues despite strong enforcement efforts by Mexico.

Totoaba swim bladders are a delicacy in parts of Asia; the largest and highest quality can fetch prices up to $50,000. With such an incentive, highly organized illegal gillnetting has continued to occur. Vaquita porpoises get entangled in these nets and drown.

Mexican officials have poured money and resources into protecting the Vaquita, including military surveillance, daily helicopter flights, and checkpoints; however, the organized fishing gangs (cartels?) have found their way around these measures and continue to operate.

So why are the NGOs calling for a boycott of Mexican shrimp? This remains a mystery as even the group letter calling for the boycott acknowledged that, “illegal fishing for totoaba is the current primary threat to vaquita.” There have been a few instances of Mexican shrimp boats catching totoaba, but due to strict regulations in the (sustainable) shrimp fishery, all have been caught. The major problem is the organized poaching, not the shrimp fishery.

Additionally, Northern Sea of Cortez shrimp makes up a small fraction of the “Mexican shrimp” the boycott calls for. Shrimpers far away from the Northern Sea of Cortez will feel the effects, grow resentment, and further strain relations between Mexico and the U.S.

A boycott would hurt those in the Northern Sea of Cortez and could pressure poor shrimp fishers to turn to totoaba to make up for lost income. A boycott could expedite the vaquitas’ demise instead of prevent it. Rather than call for a boycott, NGOs should offer resources to Mexican officials to develop better enforcement.

Simply stated: a boycott hurts people and does nothing to improve the chances of the remaining vaquitas’ survival.

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3 Responses

  1. This is another example of Mexicos lawlessness. Their “efforts ” to enforce leave a lot to question. International law and enforcement would help, but who will make the first step. Unfortunately, when action is put into motion it’s too late.

    1. For the record, Mexico’s efforts have been praised by many. It is easy to criticize when the resources needed are not yours.

  2. I met Dr. Ray Hilborn ages ago when I was finishing my PhD Dissertation in Mexican Shrimp fisheries at Imperial College (John Beddington´s Group RRAG) at the University of London. Since, we have had a professional and friendly relationship. When I became President of the National Fisheries Institute (INP, the equivalent to NMFS in USA), Ray and others played a very important role in building what is called now the modern school of thought and fishery science in Mexico. Since, we have been involved in diferent fishery and management projects associated.

    3 days ago Ray called to my attention on the Vaquita-Shrimp Embargo note that was circulating. I would like to share with a wider audience the response that I gave him related to this important issue do to the fact that I have been an active actor in my past capacities of President of INP and lately former Director-General of the Environmental Policy Division within the Mexican Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources.

    “Dear Ray,

    Indeed, they are targeting wrong as the CFOOD note (“NGOs Target Wrong Fishery to Save Vaquita Porpoise”) rightly states!!!!


    The report https://www.mmc.gov/priority-topics/species-of-concern/vaquita/ reflects an unbiased sintetic version of the state of the efforts since we stablished CIRVA1 in 1997 when I was President of the Mexican National Fisheries Institute and you were invited to participate on it.

    This seems to me (NGOs position) a fully biased approach based on commertial interests -as with the Tuna Embargo- than a sound propposal for reverting the state of the affairs either in conservation or/and social terms for the Vaquita and the shrimp artisanal fishermen in the Upper Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez).

    Specially when Tuna embargo discussions are being held at the appropiate Fora.

    Let me know if I can expand my comment in other propper and alternative fora which certainly I am willing to do.

    Finnaly, I appreciate your efforts to keep me in the loop on these matters and cannot agre more with Brandolini´s Law when states that “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude greater than to produce it”

    Kind regards


    Antonio J. Díaz-de-León-C (PhD).
    ICES Consulting

    IPhone +(5255) 5405 0209
    e-mail ajdlc54@gmail.com
    Skype adiazdeleon54 en la Cd. de Mexico (In Mexico City)
    LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=148830298&trk=nav_responsive_tab_profile_pic
    ReserachGate https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Antonio_Diaz-De-Leon

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