President Biden Declines To Embargo Products From Mexico For Failing To Protect Vaquitas; As Few As 10 Remain In The World

Photo by Paula Olson / NOAA

This week, President Biden announced that he will not embargo products from Mexico despite its failure to halt the illegal wildlife trade threatening the critically endangered vaquita porpoise. 

The decision responds to the Secretary of the Interior’s recent certification under the U.S. Pelly Amendment that Mexico has “diminished the effectiveness” of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) by not stopping the illegal fishing and trade of totoaba, an endangered fish poached for its swim bladder.

The Pelly Amendment authorizes the president to act, including, by imposing trade sanctions against countries determined to be violating international conservation treaties such as CITES.

Instead of issuing sanctions this week, the president called for a high-level dialogue between the U.S. and Mexico on protecting the vaquita from trafficking and directed U.S. agencies to reassess Mexico’s efforts by July 2024 with the potential for trade sanctions at that time.

“I’m disappointed in the US government for doing so little to save vaquitas from extinction,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “These are the rarest marine mammals in the world, and yet the United States has let the Mexican government off the hook again. Mexico has a long, painful history of failed promises on protecting these little porpoises. The United States needs to apply the strongest pressure and ban seafood from Mexico until there’s real enforcement on illegal fishing in their habitat. The last 10 vaquitas are at stake.”

The vaquita is the world’s most critically endangered porpoise, with as few as 10 to 13 animals remaining. Vaquitas become entangled in illegal gillnets set to catch totoaba, shrimp, and other species in Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California. Totoaba swim bladders are trafficked primarily to China, where they are sold at exorbitant prices to make soup with purported medicinal benefits.

For decades, Mexico has failed to adequately enforce its fishing and wildlife trade laws in the Upper Gulf, causing the vaquita to decline from nearly 600 in 1997 to only around a dozen today.

“Seven years ago, Mexico promised the United States that it would permanently ban the use of gillnets in all fisheries throughout the vaquita’s range,” said Zak Smith, director of global biodiversity conservation at NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). “Today, gillnets are still routinely used in vaquita habitat and the species’ population has plummeted to around 10 individuals. The United States should be using all the tools at its disposal, including an embargo on targeted products, to compel Mexico to meet its international obligations and save the species.”

In 2014, in response to Mexico’s failures, conservationists petitioned the Secretary of the Interior to certify Mexico under the Pelly Amendment. On May 18, after nine years and a federal lawsuit filed by conservation groups, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland certified that Mexican nationals are diminishing the effectiveness of CITES by “engaging in taking and trade of the totoaba fish and the related incidental take of vaquita.” Following such certification, the Pelly Amendment required the president to decide whether to embargo Mexican wildlife products to prompt Mexico’s compliance.

“With only a dozen vaquita remaining, the Biden administration must remain vigilant, and ensure that Mexico does not continue to evade its CITES responsibilities,” said DJ Schubert, a wildlife biologist at the Animal Welfare Institute. “We believe that strong sanctions against Mexico are warranted, and we will continue to demand that the United States exercise all options to ensure Mexico does everything in its power to save the vaquita. The US public will not tolerate our government being complicit in the extinction of a species.”

Although some evidence suggests a reduction in illegal fishing in the “zero tolerance area” — core vaquita habitat — recent reports show that illegal fishing continues in the Upper Gulf, including in the vaquita refuge and gillnet prohibition area. Furthermore, Mexico’s September 2020 regulations, which were supposed to meaningfully address illegal fishing, have not been fully implemented or enforced.

​​​​​​​Without the removal of illegal gillnets from the entire vaquita habitat, the species will — at best — remain on the brink of extinction.

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