Earth Day Order Ends Chapter in Fight to Save Vaquita

NRDC has been tenaciously fighting to save the vaquita porpoise—the planet’s smallest and most endangered cetacean—for years. For the last two years, that fight has included a fierce court battle alongside our partners the Center for Biological Diversity and Animal Welfare Institute. That battle ended today, on Earth Day, when U.S. Court of International Trade Judge Gary S. Katzmann granted our request to dismiss the case. We requested dismissal only after the Trump administration gave us the embargo we were fighting for on Mexican seafood that is caught with gillnets that kill vaquita.

In ending the case, Judge Katzmann noted a fact that has been motivating us throughout this fight and the litigation: The vaquita—affectionately dubbed the “panda of the sea” for the black markings around their eyes—is a species that “cannot be replaced.”

Credit: NOAA Tom Jefferson

The stakes couldn’t be higher. Only about 10 vaquita remain today. After a million years on the planet, the small porpoise’s time may soon be up.

The vaquita is found in the northern Gulf of California—a slim body of water between Baja and mainland Mexico. Entanglement and drowning in Mexican fishermen’s gillnets is the sole cause of the vaquita population’s decline. The vaquita is caught in these underwater nets at the staggering rate of nearly 50 percent of the population each year. If current levels of gillnet fishing continue in the vaquita’s small range, the vaquita will likely be extinct in the next year or two.

More than two years ago, NRDC together with our partners filed a lawsuit in the Court of International Trade in New York, NY, seeking to enforce a little-used provision of the Marine Mammal Protection Act to protect the vaquita. That provision requires the U.S. government to ban imports of seafood from foreign fisheries whose fishing practices result in incidental killing of a marine mammal in excess of U.S. standards.

Today marks an important turning point in our fight for the vaquita. After years of resisting our calls for an embargo, including unsuccessfully fighting the ban in an appeal to the Federal Circuit, the U.S. Government finally agreed to fulfill its obligation under the Act: it has banned the importation of gillnet-caught shrimp, fish, and their products from northern Mexico. The ban places significant economic pressure on Mexico to provide desperately-needed relief for vaquita. This is the result we sought at the outset of the case. 

In a somber and eloquent order recognizing that the vaquita is “perilously close to disappearing from the planet forever,” Judge Katzmann accepted our proposed settlement. The Court noted that the vaquita is an “evolutionarily distinct animal with no close relatives, whose loss would represent a disproportionate loss of biodiversity, unique evolutionary history, and the potential for future evolution”; and that “Plaintiffs have achieved the outcome they sought before the court in the suit they filed” after the U.S. Government abruptly “changed course.”

On this Earth Day, the legal battle to save the vaquita reminds us of the impact we can all have when we dedicate ourselves to what we know in our heart is right—even when the odds seem long. Not only did we seek to enforce a part of the Marine Mammal Protection Act with little court precedent on which to rely, we did so knowing we were racing against time—we faced the very real possibility the species would go extinct before we completed our case.

The gravity of losing a large-brained mammal like ourselves—losing any species—from our planet forever is near impossible to carry, and it has haunted the vaquita’s story and this case from the outset. In the fight for our planet, for all the species that call it home, for a world we want to inhabit and our children to inherit, the vaquita is emblematic of the enormous challenges of our time. The court captured this in its poignant closing: “On this Earth Day, as we ponder the imperatives of biodiversity and the environment, we would do well to heed the sobering words of Rachel Carson: ‘So delicately interwoven are the relationships that when we disturb one thread of the community fabric we alter it all—perhaps almost imperceptibly, perhaps so drastically that destruction follows.’”

The odds of vaquita survival remain grave, but there is no doubt that we must give the battle for the vaquita’s existence everything we can.

About the Authors

Giulia C.S. Good Stefani

Senior Attorney, Marine Mammals, Oceans Division, Nature Program

Zak Smith

Senior Attorney & Director, Global Biodiversity Conservation, Nature Program

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