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 and robust action from Mexico, the tiny porpoise could be extinct by 2021.
“A ban on gillnet-caught seafood from Mexico’s Gulf of California is the life line the vaquita desperately needs,” said Giulia Good Stefani, staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, who argued the case before the Court. “Collectively, our organizations have spent over a decade working to save the vaquita—and never has extinction felt so close—but now, the world’s smallest and most endangered porpoise has what may be its very last chance.”
The ruling follows a lawsuit filed in March by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Animal Welfare Institute and the Center for Biological Diversity, and it affirms Congress’ mandate under the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act that the United States protect not just domestic marine mammals, but foreign whales, dolphins, and porpoises as well.
The import ban covers all fish and fish products from Mexican commercial fisheries that use gillnets within the vaquita’s range in the Upper Gulf of California. This includes shrimp, corvina (drum fish), sierra (Spanish mackerel) and chano (bigeye croaker) from the area. Gillnets are fishing nets that hang in the water, indiscriminately catching both target fish and other marine creatures, including vaquita. It is estimated that in 2017 alone more than 1,400 tons of the now-banned gillnet-caught fish and shrimp, valued at roughly $16 million, crossed the border to be consumed in the United States.
“With vaquitas on the brink of extinction, these economic sanctions are painful but necessary to push Mexican officials to finally protect these little porpoises,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “For 20 years, the Mexican government has promised to save the vaquita but failed to take meaningful action. That has to change or we’ll lose these animals forever.”
The U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act requires the U.S. government to ban seafood imports from foreign fisheries that kill marine mammals, including the vaquita, at a rate that would violate U.S. standards for domestic fishers. The vaquita’s mortality rate of almost half the population each year far exceeds the fisheries’ bycatch rates for marine mammals permitted in this country.
“This ruling is a vindication of a key objective of the MMPA, and ensures that the U.S. market will not hasten the extinction of an endangered species,” said Kate O’Connell, marine animal consultant at the Animal Welfare Institute. “The Mexican government must now protect the vaquita from gillnets before it is too late and this species disappears forever.”
In its decision, the court found that ”the number of permissible vaquita deaths under the [Marine Mammal Protection Act] is being exceeded, that an embargo is legally required, and that the species is at risk of extinction.” The court explained that the risk of the vaquita’s extinction from continued gillnet fishing in the Gulf outweighed the costs of an embargo. The court cited experts’ statements that “extinction is . . . inevitable unless gillnets are completely removed from vaquita habitat,” and that the vaquita’s plight is so desperate that “even one more bycatch death . . . threatens the very existence of the species.”
Mexico has failed to permanently ban all gillnets in the vaquita’s habitat, despite repeated recommendations by scientists and evidence that the use of gillnets by any fishery—in or adjacent to the vaquita’s range—will undeniably lead to the species’ extinction.
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The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at www.nrdc.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.6 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
The Animal Welfare Institute (www.awionline.org) is a nonprofit charitable organization founded in 1951 and dedicated to reducing animal suffering caused by people. AWI engages policymakers, scientists, industry, and the public to achieve better treatment of animals everywhere—in the laboratory, on the farm, in commerce, at home, and in the wild. For more information, visit www.awionline.org.