PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Mexico is considering legalizing the trade in rare totoaba fish in order to save the world’s most vulnerable marine mammal, the country’s environment minister said.
Vaquita porpoises - of which about 30 are left - get caught in the nets that poachers use for the fish.
As a result, said Rafael Pacchiano, Mexico is ramping up captive cultivation of totoaba to supply China, the main destination for the protected fish.
“For the very first time we’re speaking with the Chinese government in order to find a solution to this problem,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Thursday.
“We think that if we create this legal market ... the illegal market will go down.”
The World Wildlife Fund says the vaquita porpoise is the rarest marine mammal in the world.
The snub-nosed porpoise is on the verge of extinction due to fishing for shrimp and totoaba with gillnets, which use mesh sizes designed to allow fish to get just their head through, but not their body.
Last year, Mexico banned gillnet fishing in the northern Gulf of California in a bid to save the vaquita.
Customers in China can pay more than $10,000 for each totoaba. They are highly prized for their swim bladders, which are added to soups and believed by some to have medicinal properties.
Mexican officials hope that farming totoaba would create a legal market for the fish, and discourage gillnet fishing.
Around 300,000 totoaba are being cultivated in captivity in Baja de California; that could be ramped up to one million each year, said Pacchiano. Getting local fishermen involved could also help to reduce poaching, he said.
“Since they own the resource and they are the only legal supplier for this new demand and this new legal market, they will also become the most important surveillance or vigilance in this area,” said Pacchiano.
The porpoise’s plight has attracted attention from environmentalists, including actor Leonardo DiCaprio.
The Mexican navy patrols areas where vaquitas are found, while airforce surveillance helps to spot illegal fishing boats, he said. Other patrols work with the Sea Shepherd environmental group to remove gillnets from the water.
Pacchiano spoke on the sidelines of a three-day summit at the Mexican resort of Playa del Carmen, where environmentalists, politicians and business leaders met to discuss ways to improve the state of the world’s oceans.