The vaquita is the world’s smallest porpoise and most endangered marine mammal, residing in only one place on the planet, the Gulf of California—which is also one of Mexico’s most profitable fishing regions. As a result of fisheries using destructive gillnets, the vaquita population has plummeted by more than 98 percent over the last 25 years as the animals are caught and killed as bycatch. In the mid-1990s, 560 of these animals existed. Today, only about 10 remain.
Unless Mexico fully and permanently bans all gillnets in vaquita habitat and properly enforces the ban, the species will be extinct within the next few years. For more information, see the 2019 Report of the 11th Meeting of the Comité Internacional para la Recuperación de la Vaquita.
Here's a look at how we've taken the fight to save the vaquita to court.
Center for Biological Diversity et al. v. Haaland et al.
In December 2022, NRDC and our partners filed our third and most recent lawsuit to ensure the United States is doing everything it can to save the vaquita. The lawsuit was filed against Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, asking the court to compel the secretary to make a decision on whether Mexico is undermining the effectiveness of a key international agreement for the protection of endangered or threatened species by failing to halt illegal fishing and trade. Here, the applicable international agreement is the the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which we have been referencing to demand action from Mexico to help protect the vaquita for numerous years.
Pursuant to a settlement agreement, Secretary Haaland certified Mexico on May 18. Now, under U.S. law, President Biden must decide by mid-July whether to take action against Mexico, including imposing a trade embargo. Unfortunately, illegal fishing continues in the vaquita’s habitat. Between April 26 and 27, at least 69 vessels were reported likely fishing with deadly gillnet gear in the vaquita refuge. If the president fails to ban imports of all wildlife products from Mexico, he must explain to Congress why. NRDC is urging the strongest import ban necessary to compel Mexico to take actions that will guarantee the vaquita’s survival.
NRDC et al. v. Wilbur Ross et al.
In March 2018, NRDC and our partners filed a second lawsuit against the U.S. Departments of Commerce, Treasury, Homeland Security, and 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, NMFS expanded the embargo to include all seafood caught in the northern Gulf using gillnets—sending a desperate lifeline to the species and settling our case.
Center for Biological Diversity et al. v. Wilbur Ross et al.
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 vaquita habitat within the northern Gulf of California, as required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Because the United States was the leading importer of these seafood products, such a 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. Thus, in December 2017, we sued the Trump administration, seeking an immediate response to our petition for a ban. (This lawsuit was dismissed in 2019 after the government responded to our petition.)
Case DocumentsComplaint Seeking Ban on Certain Mexican Seafood Imports for the Protection of Vaquita (PDF) U.S. Court of International Trade Order Granting Motion for Preliminary Injunction (PDF) U.S. Court of Appeals Order Denying Defendant's Motion to Suspend Proceedings (PDF) U.S. Court of International Trade Final Order (PDF)