Rush to Save the Vaquita from Unyielding Human Negligence


NOAA/Paula Olson

With fewer than 30 remaining and an annual decline rate of about 50 percent, the vaquita porpoise is the world’s most endangered marine mammal. It may be the most endangered animal on the planet.

Now, there’s frantic energy around the vaquita, like the last moments in an emergency room when doctors push another round of drugs into a dying patient. The latest move is NRDC’s petition—filed on behalf of NRDC, the Center for Biological Diversity (the Center), and the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI)—to the U.S. government to ban the import of vaquita-harmful fish and fish products. We believe the ban will compel fisheries that are contributing to the vaquita’s decline to stop using gillnets, which are the sole cause of the vaquita’s decline. The small porpoises get entangled in the nets and drown.

Extinction has been stalking the vaquita for decades, despite the work of conservationists and scientists to reverse the trend. Unfortunately, the people with the power to save the vaquita—Mexican government officials and fishermen in the northern Gulf of California—have consistently embraced half measures, always looking for the least economically-painful way to provide “save the vaquita” lip service.

A little more than two years ago, I wrote about Mexico’s then-newest plan to save the species. I called it Mexico’s plan for vaquita extinction. Mexico’s initiative has failed so dramatically that the vaquita’s annual rate of decline has increased during the period of its so-called “major effort.” This failure has now led to the desperate action of capturing vaquita to remove them from their deadly habitat, which continues to be riddled with gillnets.

The U.S. government has consistently asked Mexico to do more, but is culpable for its own failure to implement U.S. law that could have helped save the species. Pursuant to the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), the U.S. government is required to ban the import of all fish and fish products from fisheries that fail to meet U.S. standards for marine mammal protection. NRDC wrote about the U.S. government’s failure to implement the import ban in 2014, with the publication of Net Loss: The Killing of Marine Mammals in Foreign Fisheries, which detailed how tens of thousands of marine mammals—including many vaquita—could be saved from death and serious injury each year if the U.S. government implemented a provision of law that had been collecting dust for more than 40 years.

With the Center and Turtle Island Restoration Network, NRDC sued the U.S. government in the summer of 2014 over its failure to implement the import provision of the MMPA. The settlement of that lawsuit eventually resulted in the 2016 adoption of regulations managing the import provision, but with a catch—a five-year phase-in-period before imports from countries failing to meet U.S. standards will be banned.

Five years is too late for vaquita, which are on track for extinction within two. So NRDC, the Center, and AWI are petitioning for emergency action from the U.S. government. The United States must immediately ban the import of all fish and fish products from Mexico that are contributing to the death of vaquitas in violation of U.S. standards for marine mammal conservation.

If the worst comes to pass, the account of the vaquita’s extinction will be a story of unyielding human negligence, a tale of half-measures, willful ignorance, wishful thinking, notorious government officials, and an economic and political system in Mexico that compels species decline in the search for profit. If the vaquita is saved, it will be an unbelievable story of persistence and a mad rush at the end, when people pulled out all the stops and used every tool in the toolbox to gain more time for vaquita and reverse its decline.

Today’s petition seeking a ban on fish imports from vaquita-harmful fisheries into the United States is one such effort. We must do everything possible to pressure the Mexican government and the fisheries operating in the northern Gulf of California to take the real steps necessary to save the vaquita.

About the Authors

Zak Smith

Senior Attorney & Director, International Wildlife Conservation, Wildlife Division, Nature Program

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