Environmental Groups Urge Trade Sanctions On Mexico To Protect Endangered Porpoise

By Kendal Blust
Published: Tuesday, August 20, 2019 - 4:38pm
Updated: Wednesday, August 21, 2019 - 9:41am

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Totoaba and vaquita
Omar Vidal/Proyecto Vaquita (1992)
A man holds up a totoaba, which is nearly the same size as the vaquita.

Environmental groups are pushing for trade sanctions on Mexico until it puts a stop to the illegal trade of the huge totoaba fish in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) will discuss the sanctions during a meeting in Geneva this week and next.

vaquita and totoba
Omar Vidal/Proyecto Vaquita (1992)
A vaquita and a totoaba shown side-by-side. Because of their similar size, gillnets designed to catch totoaba easily ensnare the vaquita, too.

The environmental organizations Environmental Investigations Agency, Animal Welfare Institute, Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Biological Diversity released a report last week asking for the sanctions. They hope it will compel Mexico to take the action necessary to end illegal poaching of the huge totoaba fish in the Sea of Cortez.

Totoaba are highly valuable on the black market in China. But the nets used to catch them also ensnare and drown the world’s smallest and most endangered marine mammal, the vaquita marina porpoise.

“The reality is that Mexico really has an obligation to the world to try to prevent the extinction of the vaquita and protect the totoaba,” said D.J. Schubert of the Animal Welfare Institute.

Mexico has made some efforts to end totoaba poaching and smuggling, which is controlled by organized crime groups. But Schubert said it hasn’t been enough.

“We don’t take any pleasure in recommending this,” he said. “But on this issue it’s time for Mexico to do something, more than it’s been doing.”

vaquita mural
Kendal Blust/KJZZ
A mural of a vaquita mother and calf near the boardwalk in San Felipe, Baja California.

Unlike many other environmental treaties, he said CITES has the teeth to impose sanctions on Mexico, a step it has taken in other cases to protect endangered species. And while the convention could also start a compliance process and then impose full sanctions next year, Schubert said that might be too late.

“We fear that the vaquita could be extinct by then,” he said. "And that’s why we are absolutely committed to trying to compel parties to recommend trade sanctions against Mexico now.”

In a report released earlier this year, scientists estimated there could be as few as 10 vaquitas left in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, and it could become extinct within months or years without drastic, immediate action to protect it.

“If we were talking about urgency in the context of a clock, I’d say it’s 11:59 and 59 seconds,” Schubert said. “It’s absolutely critical.”

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