Mexico’s Failure To Protect Last 10 Vaquita On Earth Warrants An Import Ban On All Wildlife Products By The U.S.

Photo by: Greenpeace 

In a settlement filed in court on Friday, the U.S. Department of the Interior agreed to determine whether Mexico has failed to stop illegal fishing and trade of totoaba that is driving the vaquita porpoise to extinction. The determination could result in an embargo against Mexico.

In response to a lawsuit filed last year by the Center for Biological Diversity, Animal Welfare Institute and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Interior will decide by May 19th, with a public announcement by June 3rd, whether to formally certify Mexico under the U.S. Pelly Amendment to the Fishermen’s Protective Act for undermining the effectiveness of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). If Mexico is certified, President Biden can embargo imports, including seafood and other wildlife products from Mexico.

“We’re relieved the U.S. government is finally going to make this call,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The vaquita is on the very precipice of extinction and strong U.S. sanctions will force Mexico to pull this little porpoise back from the brink.”

As previously reported by WAN, last week a decision by the CITES Secretariat triggered the suspension of all commercial trade in CITES-protected species with Mexico for the country’s failure to submit an adequate plan to control totoaba fishing and trafficking that threatens the vaquita. Additional U.S. import restrictions pursuant to a Pelly certification could be broader, potentially banning all wildlife products from Mexico, not just CITES-protected wildlife.

“It is shameful that previous administrations did not use this tool to help save the critically endangered vaquita and that we had to go to court to force action,” Zak Smith, Director of Global Biodiversity Conservation at NRDC, said in a statement. “This administration must do better. Secretary Haaland and President Biden should use the power Congress gave them to compel Mexican action.”

Highly imperiled vaquita are found only in Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California. The porpoises become entangled and drown in illegal nets set to catch shrimp and fish, including the totoaba, an endangered species coveted in China and elsewhere for its swim bladder. The Mexican government has repeatedly failed to enforce its own ban on fishing in the vaquita’s habitat. Only around 10 vaquita likely remain in the wild and scientists predict the species will soon be extinct, unless Mexico halts illegal fishing in the vaquita’s habitat.

In 2014, conservationists filed a legal petition requesting a ban on imports from Mexico under the Pelly Amendment. This law requires the U.S. Department of the Interior to certify nations that “diminish the effectiveness of,” or violate international wildlife agreements, such as CITES. Mexico’s failure to halt totoaba fishing and trade undermines CITES, which bans the totoaba trade. In December 2022, after the U.S. Department of the Interior failed to respond to the petition for more than eight years, conservationists sued to force a decision. During this eight-year period, the vaquita population declined by more than 90%.

If the U.S. Department of the Interior certifies Mexico, Biden must notify Congress within 60 days of any actions taken by him to ban imports from Mexico. The White House could impose trade sanctions on Mexico, including banning the import of any Mexican seafood. A significant share of income from all Mexican fishery exports is from U.S. trade; the United States imported roughly $745 million worth of edible seafood products from Mexico in 2022.

“While the DOI dithered, the vaquita population plunged from approximately 100 animals to fewer than 10,” said DJ Schubert, wildlife biologist at the Animal Welfare Institute. “DOI must certify Mexico and the White House must impose broader trade sanctions if the vaquita has any hope of surviving.”

Illegal fishing continues in the vaquita’s habitat. On March 9, it was reported that as many as 38 vessels were observed in the vaquita refuge. They were likely fishing with deadly gillnet gear.

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