Mexico Under Investigation For Failing To Protect The Vaquita As Species Inches Closer To Extinction

Photo by: Paula Olson / NOAA

Yesterday, following a two-year delay, the Council of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) unanimously voted to launch an investigation into Mexico’s neglect in protecting the critically endangered vaquita porpoise. Mexico’s lack of enforcement of its own fishing and wildlife trade regulations is driving the iconic vaquita porpoise towards the brink of extinction.

In 1997, there were an estimated 570 vaquitas in the Upper Gulf of California, their sole habitat. Tragically, today, less only 6-8 vaquita remain in the wild. These graceful creatures are being entangled in illegal fishing nets in the Upper Gulf, set to catch shrimp and other fish species, including the endangered totoaba fish. The totoaba’s coveted swim bladder, known as “maw,” is illegally traded in China, exacerbating the threat to the vaquita’s survival.

The USMCA, a trade pact among the United States, Mexico, and Canada, came into force in 2020 to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement. After Wednesday’s ruling, the USMCA Commission for Environmental Cooperation’s secretariat has a span of up to four months to craft a thorough “factual record,” comprising an investigative report containing technical, scientific, and legal details concerning Mexico’s endeavors to curb the unlawful use of gillnets, which are jeopardizing the critically endangered vaquita porpoise.

The record, once compiled, should demonstrate ample evidence of ongoing illegal fishing in the vaquita’s habitat. If the commission determines that Mexico has failed to properly enforce the law, a separate committee can provide recommendations for further cooperative action.

“Mexico needs to face accountability from the international community to finally spur urgent action to save the vaquita,” said Alejandro Olivera, a senior scientist and Mexico representative at the Center for Biological Diversity. “These porpoises are still suffering from illegal and deadly gillnets in their habitat, and Mexico has been looking the other way for years as vaquitas spiral toward extinction. With the three-party trade agreement in place, Mexican authorities will have to comply or face consequences.”

Scientists report that vaquita recovery requires effective protection from gillnets throughout the species’ recent range, enabling the world’s most endangered marine mammal to reoccupy at least a small area in the Upper Gulf known as the Vaquita Refuge. A May 2024 survey identified 6–8 vaquita, compared to 8–13 seen in the 2023 survey. Unlike last year, no vaquita calves were observed, although one healthy yearling was spotted.

“As it is possible that only six to eight vaquita are left on the planet, the CEC must act urgently to encourage Mexico to finally enforce its fishing laws to save this critically endangered porpoise,” said DJ Schubert, senior wildlife biologist with the Animal Welfare Institute. “Without immediate and meaningful enforcement, the vaquita will join the growing list of species that have gone extinct due to human greed, ignorance, incompetence, and inaction.”

In 2021, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Animal Welfare Institute, Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Environmental Investigation Agency submitted evidence to the commission’s secretariat that Mexico is failing to protect the vaquita.

In response, the secretariat identified that “central issues remain unresolved in relation to the effective protection and conservation of the vaquita porpoise and the totoaba in the Upper Gulf of California.” Consequently, in 2022, the secretariat recommended the preparation of a factual record that the council should have voted on within 60 working days. Instead, it waited more than two years.

“The council’s delay in voting on whether to prepare a factual record has jeopardized the vaquita’s survival,” said Zak Smith, senior attorney and director of global biodiversity conservation at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The vaquita is on the edge of extinction and the shortcomings of USMCA processes are part of that history. Urgent action was necessary two years ago and is still necessary today if the USMCA environmental provisions are going to meaningfully help conserve the vaquita.”

In February 2022, in response to a request from the same four animal welfare and conservation groups, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai initiated environmental consultations with the government of Mexico under the USMCA. These consultations specifically address Mexico’s USMCA obligations related to the protection of the vaquita, the prevention of illegal fishing, and the trafficking of totoaba. This is the first step in USMCA’s formal enforcement process and could eventually result in trade sanctions under the trade pact.

“The illegal fishing and trading of totoaba maws for the predominantly Chinese market has led to decimation of the vaquita population, driving them rapidly towards extinction,” said Sarah Dolman, senior ocean campaigner at the Environmental Investigation Agency. “The Mexican government must take immediate and robust enforcement action to stop the illegal fishing and prevent the transnational totoaba trade to allow the vaquita population to recover.”

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