US government settles vaquita, totoaba suit with pledge to make decision on Mexico import ban

Vaquita from a photo from the 1970s.

The U.S. Department of the Interior has arrived at a settlement of a lawsuit demanding it certify Mexico as not adequately protecting the critically endangered totoaba and vaquita porpoise.

The lawsuit, which was filed in 2020 in the U.S. Court of International Trade by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Animal Welfare Institute, demands the U.S. government certify Mexico under a U.S. law called the Pelly Amendment, which would allow the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden to embargo the import of wildlife products from Mexico, including shrimp and fish. The U.S. imported around USD 745 million (EUR 687 million) of seafood from Mexico in 2022.

In the 7 April settlement, the U.S. Department of the Interior agreed to determine whether it will certify Mexico in violation of the Pelly Amendment by 19 May, with a public announcement by 3 June.  

“We’re relieved the U.S. government is finally going to make this call,” Center for Biological Diversity International Program Director Sarah Uhlemann said. “The vaquita is on the very precipice of extinction, and strong U.S. sanctions will force Mexico to pull this little porpoise back from the brink.”

The federal agency’s deliberation will hinge on whether it believes Mexico’s action or inaction has resulted in undermining of the effectiveness of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). In March, CITES introduced sanctions against Mexico for the country’s failure to submit an adequate plan to control totoaba fishing and trafficking, which threatens the vaquita. That move should provide a benchmark for the U.S. Interior Department’s deliberations, Uhlemann said.

If and when Mexico is cited under the Pelly Amendment, Biden has the option of expanding a ban on Mexican imports beyond just wildlife products covered under CITES to encompass all imports from Mexico. If he chooses to do so, he must give Congress at least a 60-day notice.

In December 2022, the three conservation groups filed a separate lawsuit against the Interior Department, forcing it to make a decision as to whether to sanction Mexico. The groups had originally asked for a decision in 2014; They cited the eight-year delay as an “unreasonable delay” and thus a violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.

“While the [Department of the Interior] dithered, the vaquita population plunged from approximately 100 animals to fewer than 10,” Animal Welfare Institute Wildlife Biologist DJ Schubert said. “DOI must certify Mexico and the White House must impose broader trade sanctions if the vaquita has any hope of surviving.”

Photo courtesy of Nereus Program/ Alejandro Robles


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