Second lawsuit filed seeking protections for vaquita via Mexican seafood import ban

Published on
March 22, 2018

Conservation groups have filed a second lawsuit against the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, seeking enforcement of the Marine Mammal Protection Act to ban imports of Mexican shrimp in an effort to save the critically endangered vaquita porpoise.

The Animal Welfare Institute, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Natural Resources Defense Council filed the suit in the U.S. Court of International Trade in New York City on 21 March, demanding an immediate response to an emergency legal petition they filed in May 2017. The petition requested that the U.S. government ban the import of seafood from Mexico caught by gillnet in the vaquita’s habitat in the upper Gulf of California. 

Scientists have estimated fewer than 30 individual vaquitas remain, and gillnets used primarily to catch shrimp have can entrap vaquita and cause them to drown.

“Scientists predict that the vaquita will be extinct soon, possibly even by next year, if Mexican fishing practices remain unchanged,” the groups said in a press release. “ A U.S. ban on Mexican shrimp and seafood imports from the upper Gulf of California would put direct pressure on the country to fully ban gillnets in the vaquita’s home waters.”

A plan to capture the remaining porpoises and place them in a protected sanctuary was abandoned in December after two capture vaquita responded poorly to the effort. Soon after, the conservation groups filed their first lawsuit against the Trump Administration on 21 December, asking for a response to a petition they filed with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

In their new suit, the conservation groups have appealed to the U.S. Court of International Trade, which has purview over issues related to international trade and customs law. The lawsuit argues that under the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, the U.S. government is required to ban seafood imports from foreign fisheries that kill marine mammals “at a rate above U.S. standards.” The groups contend that the average annual mortality of 50 percent of the vaquita population exceeds U.S. standards. 

“The United States is a leading importer of fish products caught in the upper Gulf of California. Banning imports of gillnet-caught seafood from vaquita habitat would remove a key incentive for the ongoing use of this destructive fishing gear in the region,” Animal Welfare Institute Marine Animal Program Director Susan Millward said in a press release. “The U.S. seafood market should not be contributing to the extinction of a species.” 

The National Fisheries Institute, a trade group representing the U.S. seafood industry, opposes a ban on Mexican seafood imports, and said its members are working “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,” according to spokesman Gavin Gibbons.

But Mexico has failed to effectively implement its gillnet ban in the vaquita’s habitat, the conservation groups said.

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