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Press contact: Ari Hershowitz, 202-289-2388, or Daniel Hinerfeld, 310-434-2300
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California Gulf Porpoise Pushed Near Extinction

LOS ANGELES (March 8, 2005) -- The rare vaquita marina, or California Gulf porpoise, is being pushed to extinction by massive over-fishing in Mexico's Upper Gulf of California, largely financed by the Mexican government and driven by the growing U.S. demand for shrimp. Today, NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) announced a new BioGem campaign to save the porpoise and the Upper Gulf fishery itself, which is collapsing under pressure from rampant shrimp fishing.

Shrimp is now the most popular seafood in the United States, and the campaign's main focus is the largest U.S. importer of Mexican shrimp, Ocean Garden Products, a Mexican government-owned company based in San Diego.

"Our campaign's goal is to persuade Ocean Garden to make good on its claim that it sells environmentally friendly seafood by taking responsibility for protecting the Upper Gulf," said Josť Yunis, an NRDC attorney. "Destructive and unsustainable practices are wiping out fish in the Upper Gulf and killing off the California Gulf porpoise."

NRDC's campaign to protect the Upper California Gulf is part of a larger initiative the organization launched in 2001 to defend exceptional, imperiled ecosystems. Each year, NRDC names 12 BioGems-unspoiled wildlands in the Americas threatened by development-and mobilizes citizens to take direct action to protect them. Over the last four years, NRDC's 500,000 online BioGem activists have sent more than 5 million messages to corporations and government officials protesting plans to sacrifice some of the Western Hemisphere's last wild and unspoiled places. (For more information about NRDC's 2005 BioGems, click here.)

Previous NRDC campaigns forced Mitsubishi and the Mexican government to abandon plans to build a massive industrial salt plant on a lagoon in southern Baja California, Mexico, that is a critical breeding area for the Pacific gray whale, and persuaded the Timber Products Company in Alaska to drop plans for a veneer mill that would have threatened the Tongass National Forest.

The Mexican shrimp industry, dominated by the government-owned Ocean Garden, launched a major U.S. promotional campaign last year, touting the 25,000 tons it exports to the United States every year as clean and environmentally friendly. And on its Web site (www.oceangarden.com), Ocean Garden proclaims that it "is committed to the protection and preservation of the ocean and inland water areas as sustainable food resources for the world."

In fact, nets used by Upper Gulf fishermen can kill 10 pounds of marine life, called bycatch, for every pound of shrimp caught. Gill nets, in particular, are hazardous to California Gulf porpoises, which often get caught in them and drown. During peak shrimp season, thousands of fishermen and a fleet of 200 industrial trawling boats scour the Upper Gulf. The area, which used to be so rich with marine life that French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau called it the "aquarium of the world," is so decimated that a March 2004 Mexican government report concluded that its shrimp fishery is in a state of "environmental, economic and political crisis."

Last month NRDC asked Ocean Garden to stop purchasing shrimp from the Upper Gulf "until effective measures are in place to maintain a sustainable fishery." Ocean Garden responded that it is the Mexican government's responsibility, ignoring the fact that the company itself is government-owned.

The Mexican government, meanwhile, has done little to address the problem. "Mexico did declare the Upper Gulf of California and Colorado River delta a Biosphere Reserve in 1993, specifically to protect the California Gulf porpoise and other species," Ari Hershowitz, director of NRDC's Latin American BioGems campaign, pointed out. "But it is not doing its job to enforce the environmental laws that would ensure their survival."

The vaquita marina has distinctive patches of black around its eyes and lips, and dark stripes from its flipper to its jaw. It is the smallest of all porpoise-like species, ranging between 2.5 and 5 feet in length, and is found exclusively in the shallow waters of the Upper Gulf, making it extremely vulnerable to over-fishing. The roughly 500 remaining porpoises have been classified as "critically endangered" by the IUCN-World Conservation Union and are on the U.S. endangered species list.

NRDC's BioGem campaign plans to educate American consumers about the plight of the Upper Gulf and urge its members and online BioGem activists to contact Ocean Garden and Mexican government officials. Other possible steps include asking U.S. consumers, fishmarkets and restaurant chains to reconsider their seafood choices when buying shrimp. The customers listed on Ocean Garden's Web site include American Fish and Seafood Company, Bubba Gump Shrimp, Pacific Seafood Group, Shamrock Foods, SYSCO, Santa Monica Seafood and True World Foods. The campaign also will notify the U.S. government, which has previously expressed concerns about the fate of the California Gulf porpoise and is authorized by the Fishermen's Protective Act to sanction countries that threaten endangered species.

At the same time, NRDC will lobby Ocean Garden and Mexican officials to:

  • stop unlicensed fisherman from operating in the Upper Gulf; develop designated regions for fishing cooperatives to give them an incentive to fish sustainably;

  • call for an end to fishing in the core habitat of the California Gulf porpoise; and

  • limit bottom trawling and gillnet fishing, which kill hundreds of other species as bycatch. Trawling destroys the ocean floor, and gillnet fishing is the main culprit in killing California Gulf porpoises.

NRDC hopes to resolve these problems by September, the beginning of the next shrimp season.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, nonprofit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 1 million members and online activists nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Related NRDC Pages
BioGems: Saving Endangered Wild Spaces
BioGems Media Center

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