Vaquita Update I: A New Totoaba Season Begins with no Assurance that Mexico Will Enforce the Gillnet Fishing Ban to Protect the Vaquita


Totoaba begin spawning in December in the shallow waters where the last vaquitas survive. With only around ten vaquitas left, it was hoped that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) would use its authority and motivate Mexico to stop the illegal trade in totoaba swim bladders. However, instead, the CITES Standing Committee, at its meeting in mid-November on the eve of the 19th Conference of Parties, agreed only that Mexico must submit a “compliance action plan” (CAP), developed in consultation with the CITES Secretariat, by 28 February 2023. The CAP was expected to:


  1. clearly outline the actions to be implemented and the steps that will be taken by Mexico to urgently progress implementation, in particular addressing the measures and activities that will be put in place to effectively prevent illegal fishers and unauthorized vessels from entering the vaquita refuge and zero-tolerance areas and maintain them as gillnet-free zones;
  2. outline the timeframe for implementation of each step and when it should be fully achieved; and
  3. include milestones to enable assessment of satisfactory implementation.


The agreement states: “If a finalized compliance action plan considered adequate by the Secretariat is not submitted by the 28 February 2023 deadline, the Secretariat shall publish a Notification to the Parties recommending a suspension of trade with Mexico, which will remain in effect until a compliance action plan assessed as adequate by the Secretariat is received.”


The February deadline for delivering the plan (CAP) will come only just before the March peak of the current totoaba season, but CITES directed Mexico to take immediate actions to further strengthen measures to effectively prevent fishers from using gillnets in the vaquita refuge and vessels from entering the zero-tolerance areas and to maintain these areas completely gillnet-free, by implementing a strict zero-tolerance policy concerning unauthorized fishing and fishing gear in these areas, ensuring surveillance on a full-time basis, and imposing strict penalties where irregularities are detected, including the seizure of both vessels and unauthorized fishing gear combined with administrative or criminal penalties as applicable.


It also directed Mexico to deploy the appropriate authorities with legal powers of seizure and arrest, together with the Navy, to effectively prevent fishers and vessels from fishing with prohibited gear in the Vaquita Refuge and from entering the Zero Tolerance Area and taking strict action against fishers that use any sites other than the authorized sites for departure and arrival of vessels ….


Recent observations in San Felipe indicate that illegal fishing is continuing with impunity despite these CITES directions to Mexico.