NGOs sue Trump administration with goal of saving vaquita porpoise

Published on
December 22, 2017

After a last-ditch effort to save the critically endangered vaquita failed in November, conservation-focused NGOs filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration to force action on their call for a ban on seafood imports from Mexico’s Gulf of California.

According to media reports, a USD 4 million (EUR 3.4 million) plan to capture the estimated 30 remaining vaquita – a small porpoise native to the Northern Gulf of California – and place them in a protected sanctuary was abandoned after the vaquita responded poorly to the effort. The first vaquita captured showed signs of stress, and a second vaquita died soon after it was rounded up by the team of 60 scientists and divers working on the project.

“This is a very, very serious setback,” Barbara Taylor, a project scientist with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), told the Guardian. “Taking vaquitas into human care was always an extreme measure, but it was virtually our only option. Now even that has gone. The vaquita is now facing extinction unless illegal fishing can be curtailed.”

Now, conservationists are increasing pressure on the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, demanding a response to their petition to ban the import of all seafood caught with any type of gillnet in the northern Gulf of California.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Animal Welfare Institute filed a petition with NOAA in May calling for the ban, citing Mexico’s potential violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act as legal justification. The groups requested a response by the end of November, but told SeafoodSource on 30 November that they had not received one. They filed a lawsuit demanding a response on 21 December.

“Today’s lawsuit seeks an immediate response to that emergency petition,” the groups said. “A U.S. ban on lucrative Mexican seafood imports will pressure Mexico to fully ban gillnets and strengthen much-needed enforcement.”

The U.S. adopted new rules to better enforce the Marine Mammal Protection Act’s import provision in 2016, and those rules will be fully applicable worldwide by 2022, but the group said their lawsuit seeks emergency application of those rules in order to save the vaquita.

“We’ve asked politely that the U.S. government take action to save the vaquita by banning Mexican seafood imports,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “But the clock is running out for the vaquita and it’s time to demand action. The Trump administration must use the strongest possible pressure quickly to force Mexico’s hand in protecting the vaquita before it’s too late.”

Mexico has thus far failed to effectively ban all gillnets in the vaquita’s habitat, the groups argued in their suit. 

“The fishing industry is driving the vaquita’s extinction – and pressure on that group to fix their practices may be the most important way to save these porpoises,” Zak Smith, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Marine Mammal Protection Project, said. “The United States must immediately ban the import of any seafood from Mexico that is contributing to the vaquita’s extinction.” 

Gavin Gibbons, a spokesperson for the National Fisheries Institute, a trade group representing the U.S. seafood industry, said the NFI has “significant concerns” about the ban, which could result in the loss of as many as 12,000 jobs in the United States, Gibbons said.

“Our members are involved in fisheries in Mexico that do not impact vaquita, yet could still be banned from bringing their catch to the U.S. if the petition were granted,” Gibbons said in an email to SeafoodSource in August. “Our members have worked to encourage Mexico to fully enforce its ban on gillnetting by boats of any size in the Gulf of California vaquita protection zone, including those with even a remote chance of interacting with the vaquita. They have and continue to support adoption of vessel monitoring systems on all vessels operating in the upper Gulf of California.”

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