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U.S. lawsuit seeks trade sanctions against Mexico as vaquita porpoise faces extinction

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A 2018 protest at the Mexican embassy in Washington, D.C., brings attention to the dwindling vaquita population. Photo: Getty

Conservation groups sued the Trump administration today to force what they say is a long-overdue decision to sanction Mexico for its illegal fishing and trade that is causing the vaquita porpoise’s extinction. The U.S. government has ignored conservationists’ 2014 legal petition seeking sanctions, including a ban on all fish and wildlife imports from Mexico, submitted under a U.S. law called the Pelly Amendment.

The lawsuit, filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) against the U.S. Department of the Interior, explains that vaquita become entangled and drown in Mexican fishing gear set to catch totoaba, an endangered fish. As few as 10 vaquita remain worldwide, and if Mexico continues to allow illegal fishing and trade, international scientific experts predict that the tiny porpoise is “doomed to extinction.” 

“Mexico is still sitting on its hands while vaquita after vaquita dies in fishing nets,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’ve tried advocacy, we’ve tried diplomacy, but we’re near the vaquita’s end. Economic pressure is necessary to force Mexico to finally wake up and stop the vaquita’s extinction.”

Mexican law prohibits totoaba fishing, and trading in totoaba is banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) because the totoaba is endangered. Yet Mexico has repeatedly failed to enforce these bans.

The lawsuit demands a formal “certification” by the U.S. government that Mexico’s illegal totoaba fishing and trade violates and “diminishes the effectiveness” of CITES. If Mexico is certified, the Trump administration can sanction the country by prohibiting all wildlife imports, including seafood, under the Pelly Amendment. Earlier this year, the United States banned shrimp and other seafood imports from the vaquita’s habitat in Mexico under a different law; a ban under the Pelly Amendment would expand those sanctions.

“The U.S. government’s delay in responding to the petition is unconscionable and has allowed the vaquita to teeter on the edge of extinction,” said D.J. Schubert, wildlife biologist for AWI. “The Pelly Amendment provides a tool to compel Mexico to stop illegal fishing and trade in fish products to save the world’s smallest and most endangered marine mammal. It’s time for the Trump administration to exercise its authority and put this law to use.”   

Despite the vaquita’s decline and the totoaba’s endangered status, Mexico has failed to stop totoaba fishing and trade. In December, hundreds of fishermen in an estimated 80 small boats were documented illegally fishing for totoaba in the vaquita’s habitat in the Upper Gulf of California. The Mexican government has yet to announce charges against any of the fishermen involved. In March, one of the last remaining vaquita was reported dead and entangled in a totoaba net. According to scientists, all gillnets must be removed from the vaquita’s range to save the species from extinction.  

Source: Animal Welfare Institute

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