Updated on 16 July 2021

Illegal fishing of totoaba, the associated illegal trade in totoaba swim bladders, and the protection of the vaquita in the Gulf of California (Mexico)


The Secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is receiving many emails expressing concerns about the illegal fishing of totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi) and the threat this poses to the vaquita (Phocoena sinus), a critically endangered porpoise endemic to the Gulf of California in Mexico.

The Conference of the Parties to CITES at its 18th meeting (CoP18, Geneva, 2019) adopted a comprehensive set of Decisions on Totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi), including urging Mexico to take immediate actions to effectively prevent fishers and vessels from entering the vaquita refuge area. Mexico is required, on a regular basis, to report to the Secretariat on the measures and activities it is implementing to address illegal fishing of totoaba, the associated illegal trade in totoaba swim bladders, and to facilitate the protection of the vaquita. Consequently, the Secretariat is in continuous contact with Mexico providing detailed feedback to the Party and proposing additional measures and activities to be pursued in support of progressing the implementation of the Decisions directed to it by CoP18.

The Secretariat in November 2020 prepared an information document to update the CITES Standing Committee on progress with implementation of the Decisions on totoaba. However, due to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the 73rd meeting of the Standing Committee (SC73) was held online in May 2021 with a reduced agenda. The discussion of the issue of totoaba and review of the progress made by Mexico and other Parties affected by totoaba trafficking was postponed until the 74th meeting of the Standing Committee (SC74), planned for early 2022. At this meeting the Committee will make any further recommendations within its mandate, which may include measures in accordance with CITES Resolution Conf. 14.3 (Rev. CoP18) on CITES compliance procedures, if appropriate.

The Secretariat also continues to engage closely with other relevant partners such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Centre and INTERPOL, working with these entities in support of the implementation of measures and activities to address illegal fishing of totoaba, the associated illegal trade in totoaba swim bladders, and the protection of the vaquita.

Further, the Secretariat is providing support to ongoing efforts in the upper Gulf of California to disincentivize illegal totoaba trade by training and equipping small groups of fishers with legal and sustainable fishing gears in two communities in Mexico. The CITES livelihood approach intends to complement the enforcement activities requested by COP18, and demonstrate that commercial-scale catches by artisanal fishers are not only possible but necessary to scale up the transition from illegal gillnets to vaquita friendly nets, as Mexico's government has committed to do in partnership with civil society organizations and fishing associations. 

As concluded by the Secretariat in the November 2020 information note it prepared to update the CITES Standing Committee, although some progress has been made by Mexico, concerns remain about the illegal activities of fishers in the vaquita refuge area. The Secretariat is fully aware that addressing this is an utmost priority for the achievement of the objectives of the totoaba decisions.