International wildlife trade body CITES sanctions Mexico over failure to protect vaquita porpoise

By Kendal Blust
Published: Wednesday, March 29, 2023 - 1:57pm
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An international body that regulates the trade of protected plants and animals has imposed sanctions on Mexico. The country had failed to deliver a satisfactory plan to protect the world’s most endangered marine mammal — a small porpoise that lives only in Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California.

Last year, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, asked Mexico to present a plan to protect the nearly extinct vaquita marina porpoise. But both an original and revised version were rejected by the body’s leadership, triggering sanctions until Mexico can establish an acceptable plan, CITES announced Monday.

The sanctions will prevent Mexico from exporting millions of dollars of wildlife products — including things like crocodile leather, tarantulas and mahogany — to most other countries, said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

“This is going to get the attention of not just those in the seafood industry who know about this issue. All of the sudden industries across Mexico are being affected by Mexico’s failure to conserve the vaquita,” she said. “It really creates tremendous internal pressure within Mexico to fix this problem," Uhlemann said. “No one relishes the idea of painful economic sanctions,” she said. “But at the end of the day, we’re talking about the extinction of a species.”

Mexico hasn’t done enough to keep gillnets out of a small zero-tolerance zone where the vaquita lives and where nets are prohibited because they entangle and drown the small mammal, she said. Nets used by poachers to catch a huge, endangered fish called the totoaba are among the most deadly and have become common in the region because international smuggling of the fish’s swim bladders is highly lucrative. In China, totoaba swim bladders are valuable for their purported medicinal properties. The totoaba, however, is about the same size as the vaquita, meaning the gillnets used to trap them are a major threat to the remaining vaquita. Scientists estimate there are only about 10 left.

Mexico’s foreign ministry released a statement calling the sanctions “unfair treatment” that fails to recognize the country’s efforts to protect the vaquita, although it also said the country was open to dialogue.

Lorenzo Rojas, a marine biologist who has worked on vaquita conservation for decades and director of the whales program for the nonprofit Ocean Wise, said Mexican officials would do better to admit they need help to protect the vaquita, both to implement alternative fishing gear and to stop totoaba poaching.

“The government of Mexico has been characterized by missing all of its opportunities,” he said.

Decades of inaction mean there are no easy or painless solutions left, he said. But if Mexico will reach out to the international community for help, he believes there is a chance for the species to rebound. Recent studies have shown that even with so few vaquita left, the population could likely recover — but only if fishing nets are kept out of their habitat.

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