United States Finds Mexico Is Undermining Wildlife Treaty, May Impose Embargo

An illustration of a vaquita entangled in a net.
Illustration by Frédérique Lucas

Failure to Control Illegal Fishing, Trade Threatens 10 Remaining Vaquita

Washington, DC—The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced today that Mexico has failed to halt the illegal wildlife trade threatening the critically endangered vaquita porpoise, diminishing the effectiveness of an international wildlife treaty. Under US law, President Biden must now decide by mid-July whether to take action against Mexico, including imposing a trade embargo. If the president fails to ban imports of all wildlife products from Mexico, he must explain why.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) wildlife treaty prohibits international trade in totoaba, an endangered fish. Although the Mexican government has recently taken some steps, for decades it largely ignored illegal totoaba fishing that entangles and kills vaquita. As a result, only about 10 vaquita remain.

Today’s decision by USFWS finds that nationals of Mexico are engaging in taking and trade of the totoaba fish and the related incidental take of vaquita that diminishes the effectiveness of CITES, and that Mexico has failed to stem the illegal harvest and commercial export of totoaba.

“Mexico has failed the vaquita and ignored its obligations under international law, so this step is crucial,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity.No one relishes painful trade sanctions, but without strong, immediate pressure from the international community, there’s a good chance we’ll lose this shy little porpoise forever.”

Under a US law called the Pelly Amendment, USFWS must certify nations for “diminish[ing] the effectiveness” of any wildlife treaty. If a country is certified, the president may embargo “any product” from that nation to prompt compliance. The United States imported roughly $798 million of fishery products alone from Mexico in 2022.

In 1994, the Clinton administration banned wildlife imports from Taiwan after USFWS certified the nation under the Pelly Amendment for illegal trade in rhino and tiger parts in violation of CITES. In response, Taiwan promptly shuttered its domestic markets where these parts were sold and tightened enforcement of its wildlife protection laws.

Today’s certification of Mexico responds to a 2014 petition and a 2022 lawsuit filed by conservation groups. Vaquita numbers declined from 100 to roughly 10 while the petition languished within USFWS.

“Today’s decision is yet another signal to Mexico that its actions to stop illegal fishing to protect the vaquita are inadequate, and that the country must substantively escalate its efforts to fully implement and enforce its laws,” said DJ Schubert, wildlife biologist with the Animal Welfare Institute. “Scientists have confirmed that the vaquita can recover — but only if gillnets are permanently removed from its habitat in the Upper Gulf.”

The United States’ finding follows a recent decision by the CITES Secretariat involving the vaquita. That ruling temporarily triggered the suspension of all commercial trade in CITES-protected species with Mexico for its failure to submit an adequate plan to control totoaba fishing and trafficking. On April 13, CITES lifted that suspension after Mexico submitted a revised plan, which has still not been made available to the public.

“The US Fish and Wildlife Service’s certification of Mexico is long overdue and its neglect to move faster has contributed to the vaquita’s near extinction,” said Zak Smith, global biodiversity conservation director at NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). “President Biden must make amends for lost time by issuing the strongest import ban necessary to compel Mexico to take actions that will guarantee the vaquita’s survival.” 

Illegal fishing continues in the vaquita’s habitat. Between April 26 and 27, at least 69 vessels were reported likely fishing with deadly gillnet gear in the vaquita refuge. Totoaba fishing has now ended for the season, but deadly gillnets will return to the vaquita’s habitat for the September shrimp season unless Mexico cracks down.

Media Contact Information

Marjorie Fishman, Animal Welfare Institute
[email protected], (202) 446-2128

Sarah Uhlemann, Center for Biological Diversity
[email protected], (206) 327-2344

Kari Birdseye, Natural Resources Defense Council
[email protected], (415) 350-7562

Alejandro Olivera, Center for Biological Diversity
aolivera@biologicaldiversity.org, +52 (612) 104 0604 (en español)

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

The Center for Biological Diversity (biologicaldiversity.org) 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.

NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Established in 1970, NRDC uses science, policy, law, and people power to confront the climate crisis, protect public health, and safeguard nature. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, Beijing and Delhi (an office of NRDC India Pvt. Ltd). Visit us at www.nrdc.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.