Trade Sanctions Sought Against Mexico in Fight to Save Vanishing Porpoise

Mexico’s Illegal Totoaba Trade Pushes Vaquita Porpoise to Edge of Extinction

WASHINGTON— The Center for Biological Diversity today urged the Obama administration to immediately impose trade sanctions against Mexico to halt the country’s illegal trade in totoaba, a giant endangered and endemic fish. Mexico’s illegal totoaba fishery is also causing the precipitous decline of the vaquita, the world’s most endangered marine mammal, of which fewer than 60 animals are left on Earth.

The Center’s latest appeal follows its 2014 petition requesting that the Obama administration certify Mexico for failing to enforce a ban on totoaba trade, as required by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Following that petition, in 2015 Mexico adopted additional conservation measures, but those measures have proved insufficient to stop either the totoaba trade or the vaquita’s decline. The Center’s newest action urges the secretaries of commerce and interior to act quickly to “certify” Mexico. If the secretaries agree, President Obama may then ban the import of Mexican seafood and other wildlife until the illegal totoaba trade ends.

“The facts are simple — Mexico’s failure to stop the ongoing totoaba trade violates its treaty obligations and is killing off the vaquita,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center. “The totoaba and vaquita have waited too long for effective action. It’s time to ban seafood imports until Mexico stops its destructive totoaba trade.”

The primary threat to vaquitas is entanglement in gillnets set for totoaba. Totoaba fishing has been banned in Mexico since 1975, but demand in Asia for the fish’s swim bladder, which is believed to have medicinal properties, jump-started the illegal fishery in recent years. At the same time, scientists estimate, the vaquita population decreased by 80 percent between 2011 and 2015 alone.

In April 2015, under international pressure, the Mexican government banned most gillnets in the upper Gulf of California and promised unprecedented enforcement to limit totoaba fishing and export. Yet in March 2016, three vaquita were found dead due to entanglement, and more than 600 illegal totoaba nets and lines have been found in the past few months within the vaquita’s Gulf of California habitat. Additionally, hundreds of of totoaba bladders have been seized both in and outside Mexico, demonstrating that the lucrative totoaba trade continues unabated.

“The vaquita needs drastic and immediate measures to ensure its survival, and there’s no doubt that the Mexican government has been ineffective in protecting the porpoise from the illegal nets set to catch the endangered totoaba,” said Alejandro Olivera, the Center’s Mexico representative. “As there is no evidence of a real national enforcement effort by Mexico, pressure from the United States is needed to speed up conservation actions.”


The vaquita is the world’s smallest porpoise, measuring just 5 feet in length. It has black smudges around its eyes and mouth that are sometimes described as a “goth” look.

Totoaba, or Mexican seabass, are marine fish that can grow up to 6 feet in length and weigh 220 pounds. Dried totoaba bladders are used for Chinese “buche” soup, and bladders can reportedly sell for $5,000 to $14,000 U.S. each.

Both vaquita and totoaba are found in only one place on Earth: Mexico’s Gulf of California.

Negotiated in 1973, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora requires nations to regulate wildlife trade through a permitting process and prohibit commercial import and export of endangered species. More than 180 nations have ratified the treaty, which controls trade in more than 35,000 species.

Both the totoaba and the vaquita are protected under CITES, and thus international, commercial trade in both species is strictly prohibited. A U.S. law called the Pelly Amendment requires the United States to officially recognize, or “certify,” any nation whose wildlife trade “diminishes the effectiveness” of the treaty. If a nation is certified, the U.S. president may embargo the import of wildlife products, including fish and other seafood, from that nation.

The United States has successfully used Pelly Amendment sanctions in the past to enforce whaling quotas and stop rhino and tiger trade in Taiwan.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Source: Center for Biological Diversity


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