This Lawyer Is Fighting to Save Two of the World’s Most Endangered Species

Oregon-based NRDC attorney Giulia Good Stefani is living her dream by working to protect orcas off her coast and vaquitas in the Gulf of California.
Giulia Good Stefani releases the first leatherback sea turtle she tagged as part of a study on entanglement in fishing gear, near Lopez Mateos, Baja.

Pilar Llanes

On the night of July 9, 2018, NRDC attorney Giulia Good Stefani could barely sleep. She was staying in a colleague’s Harlem apartment in New York City, which felt like a million miles from home, and couldn’t stop thinking about her argument the next morning before the U.S. Court of International Trade on behalf of the vaquita, the planet’s most endangered marine mammal. She’d spent the anxious hours of the day going over each of the arguments with her colleagues in painstaking detail. But the next morning in the courtroom, “once the argument began, the nerves slipped away,” she says. “It helped that the hearing started off with a discussion of the desperate plight the vaquita is in.”

With as few as 15 remaining, and with half of its population drowning in fishermen’s gillnets in the northern Gulf of California every year, the outlook is bleak for the tiny porpoise. To help save it, NRDC, along with partners at the Center for Biological Diversity and the Animal Welfare Institute, sued to instate a ban on imports of Mexican seafood caught with the deadly gillnets. And just a couple of weeks after Good Stefani argued the case, the court ordered the Trump administration to do so.

“The fact that our case could spare a marine mammal species from extinction is pretty wild,” she says of the victory. “I feel lucky to be part of the team fighting to save it.”

The vaquita is not the first highly endangered species Good Stefani has worked to protect. From her home base in Mosier, Oregon, she focuses her efforts largely on the plight of Southern Resident killer whales, orcas native to the Pacific Northwest, whose numbers have dwindled to a 30-year low of 75. (The now-famous mother orca known as Talequah, who kept her stillborn calf afloat for 17 days this past summer, is a member of that troubled population.) Southern Resident killer whales are nutritionally stressed due to a lack of salmon, their main food source. Because of this link, Good Stefani works closely with the Save Our Wild Salmon coalition and recently joined a Washington State task force set up by Governor Jay Inslee to address the crisis.

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“There’s a tremendous amount of pressure at the moment to come up with bold solutions to help the orcas,” says Good Stefani. Because she lives on the Columbia River, historically the largest source of salmon for the killer whales, she says she feels an especially strong personal connection to her mission. “It has brought a deeper richness and quality to the work to live in such close proximity to the river, to the tribes that have existed in harmony with salmon here for centuries, and to the scientists who go out on the water all summer every year to be with the orcas. There's a sense of us all working together that’s really, really great.”

Even as a kid growing up in landlocked Vermont, Good Stefani, who joined NRDC in 2013, had a fascination with marine mammals. In sixth, seventh, and ninth grades she set off on spontaneous road trips with her single mother and siblings to camp on the Florida Keys. In order to make up for the week or two of schooling she missed each time, one middle-school teacher assigned her a report on dolphins, a project that sparked a connection to the intelligent and charismatic creatures. It also happened to be the early 1990s, right around the time the United States embargoed yellowfin tuna from countries that were killing dolphins in purse seine nets. “In many ways I’ve come full circle now, working to protect the vaquita from entanglement in fishermen’s nets,” Good Stefani says.

Good Stefani (center right) waits for helicopter transportation with the Mt. Hood National Forest Zigzag Hotshot Crew near Winthrop, Washington, after completing a large backburn. She was one of only two women on the 20-person crew.

Giulia Good Stefani

She went on to major in biology at Dartmouth to prepare for a career in marine mammal science. But it didn’t quite work out that way. After college graduation, looking for a quick way to pay off her student debt, Good Stefani moved to Oregon to become a wildland firefighter. She’d always been intrigued by the West, she says, and she was quickly sold on the region’s vast expanses. What was supposed to be a summer job turned into a three-year gig, followed by a year as a firefighter on a helicopter rappel crew in Southern California.

“Firefighting felt really real for me. It was very connected to the ground and the earth, and it was a task that I understood,” she says of the formative experience. “And you go to such gorgeous places. I went to fires in Glacier National Park that were in parts of the park that no one gets to visit. We’d be dropped by helicopter into some remote part of Idaho or drive through the night to reach a fire in who-knows-where Nevada—it was so wild. The country’s gorgeous, and I got to see a lot of it.”

Good Stefani at the Court of International Trade hearing on the vaquita

Alexander Spacher for NRDC

But her longer-term plan of starting a family didn’t exactly align with the demands of firefighting. Eventually Good Stefani turned to a back-up plan: attending Yale Law School. (The sharp shift in her career track, she notes, was partially inspired by working among environmental lawyers during a stint interning at Earthjustice one winter, the firefighting off-season.) In 2013, she found her way to her dream job, working on behalf of marine mammals as a lawyer for NRDC. Today she balances this work with caring for three kids under four—two biological children and a foster daughter she and her partner recently welcomed into their home.

“She’s incredibly dedicated to everything she does,” says Good Stefani’s NRDC colleague Zak Smith. A senior attorney who has worked on saving the vaquita for years, Smith notes the significance of her court argument in July. “Her ability to jump in and get up to speed on a complicated area of law was amazing,” he says. “There wasn’t a road map or a precedent or a lot of cases to mine from. Beyond the vaquita, the success of this case is going to be helpful for NRDC’s work in this area of law for years to come.”

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