Legal Notice Pushes US to Embargo Mexican Seafood Caught with Vaquita Porpoise-Killing Nets

Photo of two vaquitas, by Tom Jefferson

Washington, DC— Conservation groups filed a legal notice today pressing the US government to ban seafood caught from Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California in an effort to save the last remaining vaquita porpoises.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) and the Center for Biological Diversity (the Center) notified the US National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) that its failure to ban imports of seafood from the vaquita’s habitat in Mexico violates the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The Marine Mammal Protection Act requires the US government to ban seafood imports from fisheries that kill marine mammals, like the vaquita, in excess of US standards for marine mammal bycatch (the accidental entanglement and deaths of marine mammals in fishing gear). Given the vaquita’s gravely imperiled status, if US standards were applied to Mexican fishermen operating in and near the vaquita’s habitat, they would be prohibited from contributing to the bycatch of any vaquita.

With far fewer than 30 remaining and an annual decline rate of nearly 50 percent, vaquita are the most endangered cetacean – and one of the most endangered animals – on the planet. If current trends continue, it is doubtful the vaquita will survive the ongoing poaching and other illegal activity, and will especially suffer during the next expected uptick of intensive totoaba poaching from January to March 2018.

“Mexico’s government has been absolutely complicit in managing the demise of the vaquita,” said Zak Smith, senior attorney with NRDC’s Marine Mammal Protection Project. “Gillnet fishing has been driving the vaquita’s extinction for decades. Even today, fishing vessels and active gillnets are being found in ‘restricted’ areas. But the government refuses to take the necessary steps for the vaquita to survive: ensuring a 100 percent gillnet-free habitat 100 percent of the time. It’s the only way to save them.”

A recent capture-and-conserve plan sought to buy more time for the vaquita, but failed. Now, the only hope of keeping the vaquita (one of only six porpoise species) from going extinct within the next four months – after spending millions of years on the planet – is to immediately render their habitat free of gillnets. The main threat to the vaquita’s survival is drowning after getting caught in gillnets used for fishing.

“The vaquita’s status is beyond dire, and we’ll sue to block seafood caught with the nets killing these pint-sized porpoises,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director with the Center. “These mesmerizing creatures will soon vanish forever unless we take drastic measures. Mexico has failed for decades to regulate fishing and save the vaquita, and now the US government must impose sanctions to force Mexico’s hand.”

Fishing vessels continue to operate with impunity in the Upper Gulf of California, despite regulations implemented to protect the vaquita, and active nets are still being found in closed fishing areas. According to PROFEPA, Mexico’s environmental protection agency, authorities confiscated 5,632 meters of fishing nets, 42 pieces of fishing gear, and detained four people during the month of October 2017 alone.

"The Mexican government has known for decades that gillnets kill vaquita, yet it has utterly failed to implement and enforce adequate protections for this tiny porpoise," said Kate O'Connell, marine wildlife consultant at AWI. “The United States must take action to compel Mexico to remedy these failures, and ban imports of seafood that threaten this rare species. Our markets should not be responsible for the extinction of a critically endangered marine mammal.”

In 2016, following a legal petition by conservation groups, the Service adopted new rules to enforce the Marine Mammal Protection Act’s import provision. Those rules will be fully applicable worldwide by 2022. A petition in May 2017 sought emergency application of the rules to save the vaquita. Today’s notice outlines how NMFS’s failure to act on the petition constitutes unreasonable delay and how its failure to ban imports from Mexico of vaquita-harmful fish violates the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Both constitute violations of law. The letter asks NMFS to respond by November 29.

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Media Contact

Amey Owen, (202) 446-2128, amey@awionline.org

About the Animal Welfare Institute
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.

About the Center for Biological Diversity
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.3 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places. For more information, visit http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/.

About the Natural Resources Defense Council
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.