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.