New lawsuit pushes U.S. to sanction Mexico over failure to protect vaquita porpoise

By Kendal Blust
Published: Monday, December 19, 2022 - 5:05am
Updated: Monday, December 19, 2022 - 8:49am
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A new lawsuit seeks to force the United States to reach a decision on a 2014 petition that requested sanctions against Mexico for not adequately protecting an endangered porpoise in the Upper Gulf of California.

It’s been eight years since the petition was filed, requesting that the U.S. use a law known as the Pelly Amendment to implement a ban on seafood imports from Mexico because of its failure to stop illegal fishing that has led to the near extinction of the vaquita marina porpoise.

In that time, the vaquita’s population has dipped from 97 to just 10. And with no response from the government, conservation groups are now suing the Interior Department to respond to their requests to sanction Mexico.

"I hope it moves quickly because we don’t have a lot of time left," said Zak Smith, senior attorney and director of global biodiversity conservation with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which filed the lawsuit alongside the Center for Biological Diversity and the Animal Welfare Institute.

"We can choose to save this species — this very specific species —  or we can choose to let them go extinct," he said.

Recent studies have confirmed that few remaining vaquita are healthy and could recover if gillnet poaching in their habitat is stopped, he said. And international groups have already threatened Mexico with potential sanctions for failing to end illegal fishing of the huge, endangered totoaba fish.

While fishing for totoaba is illegal, there is demand for totoaba swim bladders in China, where they are considered "a symbol of wealth and for their purported, but unproven, medicinal value," according to a press release from the Center for Biological Diversity. The gillnets used to catch totoaba are also the leading threat the vaquita, which can get entangled and drown.

While Mexico has implemented laws meant to keep gillnets out of the vaquita's territory, it has failed to adequately enforce those laws, allowing rampant poaching to continue.

Mexico’s failure to end poaching is a violation of the country’s international commitments, Smith said, and the U.S. has an obligation to economically pressure Mexico to action or risks being complicit in the vaquita's extinction.

While not all endangered species can be saved, he said the way we respond to those who can sets a precedent for the future, as climate change and biodiversity loss create increasing crises for species around the world.

"Either we can decide collectively, globally, to hold each other to these obligations, or we will see a lot more situations like the vaquita," he said. "I don't think we should ever be comfortable with the idea of letting a species go extinct because we couldn't agree to the trade offs."

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