Ban On Mexican Seafood Aims To Protect Endangered Vaquita Porpoise

Published: Monday, July 30, 2018 - 9:26am
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NOAA Fisheries

A U.S. trade court judge ruled Thursday that the Trump administration must ban Mexican seafood caught with gill nets in areas where they threaten the endangered vaquita porpoise. Conservation groups see this as a major win, but Mexican fishermen on the Sea of Cortez say it’s a threat to their livelihoods.

In his ruling Thursday, Judge Gary S. Katzmann said that protecting the vaquita from extinction outweighs the costs of banning Mexican fish and shrimp in the region.

“What cannot be disputed is that the vaquita’s plight is desperate, and that even one more by-catch death in the gill nets of fisheries in its range threatens the very existence of the species,” Katzmann wrote.

With as few as 15 remaining in the Sea of Cortez, the vaquita is considered the rarest marine mammal.

However, the ban won’t deter the real threat — those already fishing illegally, said Leon Tissot Plant, spokesperson for the fishing industry’s chamber of commerce in Sonora.

He said the biggest danger to vaquitas are nets used to catch the totoaba, which is valuable in Asia for its bladder. The new ban won’t stop that illegal trade, he said.

“Who’s going to suffer the [consequences]? The fishermen who work legally,” he said. “So yes it’s going to have a social and economic impact.”

But conservation groups say it’s the Mexican government that has failed fishermen by not helping them find alternative fishing methods that don’t put the vaquita at risk.

“For more than 10 years the government has failed to design and implement vaquita-safe fishing gear,” said Alberto Olivera, Mexico’s representative with the Center for Biological Diversity, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “Vaquitas are now on the brink of extinction.”

The ban, a preliminary injunction, is expected to be implemented in the coming days. It will be in effect until the case can be fully argued by both parties, or until Mexico meets U.S. standards for protecting the vaquita.

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