A Tale of Two Species: How the Vaquita & Totoaba Defined the Conservation Landscape of the Upper Gulf of California

The upper, or far northern Gulf of California is a place where the livelihoods of small-scale coastal fishermen have collided time and again with two iconic species that are now international conservation symbols. Since the 1970’s, these two distinct, native species have been the primary drivers for conservation-based management in the Upper Gulf of California & Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve– the vaquita porpoise (Phocoena sinus) and the totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi). The vaquita is the world’s most endangered marine mammal, while the totoaba is a large drum fish that has been consistently over-exploited, first as a sport-fish and now for its swim bladder – an organ worth its weight in cocaine and stockpiled or sold illicitly as traditional medicine in China. The story of the vaquita and totoaba are inextricably linked because gillnets used to capture the fish entangle and drown the little porpoise as it makes its way through the murky waters of the northern Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez).

The timid vaquita was only revealed to western science in the late 1950’s, and gillnetting led to a population crash long before any viable interventions were applied. Today, there are less than 30 individuals left, and under the current socio-economic scenario extinction seems imminent. This is a classic example of doing too little – too late, and one that should be avoided with endangered species in other parts of the world. CEDO is currently advising the United Nations regarding lessons learned in this decades long conservation saga. 


Click on the vaquita marina, or Gulf harbor porpoise (Phocoena sinus) to learn more


Click on the Totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi) to learn more