China’s inconsistent environmental track record sometimes has a sneaky way of moving beyond the country’s borders. This time, its effects have made it across the Pacific to Mexico — the Gulf of California, to be exact.
Nefarious fishermen there are hunting the Mexican waters for a prized catch called the totoaba, a monstrous fish whose air bladder is a rare delicacy in China because it supposedly holds medicinal qualities. The Guardian reports that in 2013, a smuggler was caught attempting to cross the border into the US with 27 of these organs worth $20,000 each.
However, the unintended victim (much smaller and cuter than the totoaba) of all this poaching is actually bearing the greatest burden.
Mexico’s vaquitas, literally “little cows,” are facing the consequences of international trade at the hands of these fish poachers. The porpoises are endemic to the Gulf of California, living in a range a quarter the size of Los Angeles, and with a population estimated at only about 97 animals, they won’t be able to bear that burden for long.
Vaquitas are the world’s smallest cetacean, a group that includes whales and dolphins. At under five feet long, they’re no bigger than a golden retriever, with rounded heads small enough to get caught up in the nets fishermen are using to catch the pricey totoaba.
Despite conservation efforts, the vaquitas’ numbers continue to fall, thanks to their infrequent reproductive habits and creative tactics employed by poachers. At this rate, China’s luxury market will have exterminated this Mexican mammal even before the last Yangtze River baiji dolphin is gone.
By Matthew Patel