NRDC et al. v. Wilbur Ross et al. (Vaquita)

Thomas A. Jefferson

The vaquita is the world’s smallest and most endangered porpoise, residing in only one place on the planet, the Gulf of California—also one of Mexico’s most profitable fishing regions. As a result of fisheries using destructive gillnets, nearly 50 percent of the vaquita population is caught and killed as bycatch each year. In the 1990s, 560 of these animals existed. Today, only about 10 remain.

In May 2017, NRDC, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Animal Welfare Institute petitioned the U.S. Departments of Homeland Security, Treasury, and Commerce to ban the import of seafood that was caught using deadly gillnets in the Gulf of California, as required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Since the United States is the leading importer of these seafood products, the ban would put much-needed pressure on Mexico to fully eliminate the use of gillnets. 

A month later, the Mexican government placed a permanent ban on most—but not all—gillnet fishing in the vaquitas’ habitat. The move was important but inadequate, considering the dire outlook for the species. In December, we sued the Trump administration, seeking an immediate response to our petition for a ban. (This lawsuit was dismissed after the government responded to our petition.)

In March 2018, NRDC and our partners filed a second lawsuit against the U.S. Departments of Commerce, Treasury, Homeland Security, and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for failing to follow the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which requires the government to ban imports from fisheries that do not meet U.S. standards for marine mammal protection.

The court ruled in our favor and ordered an embargo on some seafood imports from Mexico caught with gillnets, including shrimp, chano, sierra, and corvina products. The U.S. government tried and failed to undo the import ban three times, with the courts siding with us each time.

Despite Mexico’s partial gillnet ban and the U.S. embargo, there were still around 70 boats illegally setting gillnets in the vaquita habitat in 2019. In March 2020, the NMFS announced that it is expanding the embargo to include all seafood caught in the northern Gulf using gillnets—sending a desperate lifeline to the species and settling our case.

With this victory, NRDC advocates and attorneys will continue to fight for vaquitas. Unless Mexico fully and permanently bans all gillnets in the Gulf of California and properly enforces the ban, the species could be extinct by 2021.

Last Updated

April 22, 2020



Issue Areas

Case Documents

U.S. Government Expands Mexican Seafood Ban to Save Vaquita Porpoise

WASHINGTON — The U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announced today that it will ban imports of Mexican shrimp and other seafood caught in the habitat of the critically endangered vaquita porpoise. The action is being taken under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), which requires the U.S. government to prohibit the import of seafood caught using fishing gear that kills marine mammals in excess of United States standards.

March 04, 2020

Court of Appeals Upholds U.S. Ban on Mexican Seafood Imports to Save Vaquita

In a victory for one of Earth’s most endangered marine mammals, a third U.S. court decision today upheld a four-month-old ban on importing Mexican shrimp and other seafood caught with gillnets that drown vaquita porpoises.

November 28, 2018

Court Orders Seafood Import Ban to Save Mexico’s Vaquita Porpoise

NEW YORK— Responding to a lawsuit filed by conservation groups, the U.S. Court of International Trade today ordered the Trump administration to ban seafood imports from Mexico caught with gillnets that kill the critically endangered vaquita porpoise. As few as 15 vaquita remain, and almost half the population drowns in fishing gillnets each year. Absent immediate additional protection, the tiny porpoise could be extinct by 2021.

July 26, 2018

Lawsuit Demands Ban on Mexican Shrimp, Other Seafood to Save Vanishing Porpoise

NEW YORK — Conservation groups sued the Trump administration today for failing to follow federal law and ban shrimp and other seafood imported from Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California and harvested with gillnets that drown the vaquita porpoise.

March 21, 2018

Lawsuit Targets Trump Administration’s Failure to Act to Save Vanishing Porpoises

Suit Seeks Ban on Mexican Seafood Imports to Prevent Extinction of Vaquita

December 21, 2017