Lawsuit Pushes U.S. to Sanction Mexico as Vaquita Porpoise Nears Extinction

NEW YORK —  Conservation groups sued the U.S. Department of the Interior today in federal court to force a long overdue decision to sanction Mexico for allowing illegal fishing and trade that endanger the vaquita porpoise.

Vaquita become entangled and drown in illegal nets set to catch totoaba, an endangered fish whose bladders are in high demand in China as a symbol of wealth and for their purported, but unproven, medicinal value. An estimated 10 vaquita are all that remain, and scientists predict the species will soon be extinct unless Mexico halts illegal fishing and trade.

“Despite Mexico’s enforcement promises, we’ve watched the vaquita population plummet over the past decade from 200, to 100, to 60, and now to only around 10,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’ve tried advocacy, we’ve tried diplomacy, but the vaquita is out of time. We need economic pressure to force Mexico to finally wake up and stop this little porpoise’s extinction.”

Today’s lawsuit filed in the United States Court of International Trade demands that the Interior Department finally certify Mexico under a U.S. law called the Pelly Amendment, which would allow the Biden administration to embargo wildlife products from Mexico.

In 2014 conservationists filed a legal petition requesting a ban on imports from Mexico under this law, which requires the Interior Department to certify nations that diminish the effectiveness of international wildlife agreements. Mexico’s failure to take effective enforcement action against the totoaba trade undermines a ban on such trade established under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES.

“Despite international outcry, Mexico has failed for decades to stop illegal fishing in the Upper Gulf of California,” said DJ Schubert, a wildlife biologist at the Animal Welfare Institute. “It is disappointing that the United States has failed to hold Mexico accountable for its dismal record of enforcement when the vaquita is on the precipice of extinction.”

For eight years, the Interior Department has ignored the petitioners’ request as the vaquita nears extinction. Sanctions resulting from a certification could prohibit all wildlife imports, including seafood, from Mexico. The U.S. market represents around 40% of the value of all Mexican fishery exports; crustaceans, fish and mollusks worth nearly $600 million were exported to the United States in 2021.

Despite CITES’ ban on trade in totoaba and Mexico’s own domestic ban on totoaba fishing, illegal fishing in the vaquita’s habitat remains rampant. Over the past several months, numerous vessels in the vaquita’s core habitat were documented fishing with deadly gillnets, including 29 vessels observed on Dec. 1 alone. The International Union for Conservation of Nature reported that between October 2021 and May 2022, illegal fishing vessels were present on 88% of the days observed (120 out of 147 days).         

Both the United States and the CITES Secretariat have already called for potential sanctions against Mexico.

“While the United States has delayed for eight years, the vaquita population has plummeted from 97 to 10,” said Zak Smith, a senior attorney at NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). “It’s time for the United States to use this ultimate tool – broad sanctions – to compel Mexico to save the vaquita.”

NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) 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 and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

The Animal Welfare Institute ( 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. Follow us on FacebookTwitter and Instagram for updates and other important animal protection news.

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