Proposed Formal Investigation Into Mexico’s Rampant Illegal Fishing Of Totoaba In The Protected Vaquita Refuge; Only An Estimated 10 Vaquita Remain In The Wild

A key U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement recommended a formal investigation into Mexico’s failure to comply with its fishing and wildlife trade laws, which is causing the near-extinction of the vaquita porpoise. Illegal fishing nets set to catch shrimp and totoaba, an imperiled fish coveted in China for its swim bladder, entangle and kill the vaquita porpoise. Ten or fewer vaquita likely remain in the wild.

The decision by the Secretariat of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, an environmental dispute body established under the USMCA, responded to a 2021 petition by conservationists. For the first time, the Secretariat identified several “central open questions” to be investigated, including questions “regarding Mexico’s compliance with the relevant laws and orders” and “the effectiveness of the measures taken.”

“This decision throws a dramatic spotlight on Mexico’s longstanding refusal to stop illegal fishing in the vaquita’s waters,” said Sarah Uhlemann, the Center for Biological Diversity’s international program director. “Mexico needs to acknowledge its own enforcement failures and actually follow through on its promises to save these little porpoises. Without strong action from Mexico, these beautiful animals will vanish forever.”

Scientists say vaquitas can survive but only if the Mexican government halts illegal gillnet fishing in the vaquita’s habitat. Sadly, the Mexican government has repeatedly failed to enforce its own laws. In November 2021, 117 boats were observed in a single day fishing illegally within the “zero tolerance zone,” an area so critical for the vaquita that all fishing and unauthorized vessel transit are supposed to be banned.

Recent observations document hundreds of illegal boats in the same area between early December and late March 2022, including eight days where more than 30 illegal boats were spotted.

“Today’s announcement should send a clear signal to the government of Mexico that its 25 years of broken promises to save the vaquita have been exposed,” said DJ Schubert, a wildlife biologist for the Animal Welfare Institute. “An objective and factual review of Mexico’s actions will reveal that successive administrations have failed the vaquita as a result of incompetence, budget cuts, corruption, and lack of political will.”

In March, the United States and other nations proposed serious sanctions against the Mexican government for violating the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) by repeatedly failing to stop trafficking of totoaba parts. CITES prohibits international trade in totoaba, and vaquita become entangled in illegal totoaba nets set to capture the fish for export, primarily to China.

In response, the Mexican government told the CITES parties that there were only “exceptional cases” of fishing violations, and that in recent months, “there had been no more reports” of fishing vessels in the “zero tolerance” area, despite documented violations.

“This investigation is even more critical since members of the CITES Standing Committee failed to enact precautionary policies to save the critically endangered vaquita,” said Clare Perry, Oceans & Climate Campaign leader of the Environmental Investigation Agency.

Following the decision, the commission’s governing body, composed of high-level environmental authorities from the United States, Mexico, and Canada, has 60 days to decide whether the review should go forward. If it does, the commission’s secretariat will develop a full factual record on Mexico’s enforcement of both its fishing laws and trade in totoaba.

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