The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has asked the Mexican government to provide environmental consultations regarding its efforts to protect the critically endangered vaquita.
U.S. Trade Representatives Katherine Tai said in a press release on Thursday, 10 February, the request is tied to making sure Mexico “lives up to” the environmental commitments laid out in the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement.
A group of American conservation groups hailed the move, which they said could save the porpoise from extinction.
“Illegal fishing is out of control in Mexican waters, and the vaquita is paying the highest possible price,” said Sarah Uhlemann, the international program director for the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement. “We’re glad the U.S. government is taking Mexico to task for violating its environmental obligations and threatening the vaquita’s existence.”
For years, environmental organizations have been critical of the practices by Mexican fisheries, and their impact on the small porpoise that live in the Gulf of California. According to current estimates, there are fewer than a dozen vaquita left alive.
Mexico has failed to enforce a ban instituted in 2017 on most gillnet fishing in the northern Gulf of California. In 2019, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society documented the presence of roughly 70 boats illegally fishing in vaquita habitat in just one day. The U.S. has previously expanded vaquita-related Mexican seafood bans for shrimp and other seafood caught in the vaquita’s habitat.
U.S. officials also want to discuss how their Mexican counterparts will take steps to stop illegal fishing of the totoaba fish. It, too, is considered an endangered species, and the gear fishermen use to catch it and shrimp in the gulf have been known to trap vaquita.
If the talks between senior-level officials fail to generate an agreement, the U.S. could then initiate a formal dispute panel that may lead to sanctions against Mexico.
D.J. Schubert, a wildlife biologist with the Animal Welfare Institute, praised the U.S. action.
“For the past 25 years, Mexico has repeatedly broken its promises to address illegal totoaba fishing, causing vaquita numbers to plummet as lawlessness and corruption thrive in the Upper Gulf of California,” Schubert said in a statement. “We … urge administration officials to send an unequivocal message to Mexico that it will be held accountable for hastening the vaquita’s extinction.”
Last April, U.S. officials banned Mexican shrimp imports from entering the country in an attempt to protect endangered sea turtles. That ban, though, was lifted six months later, after the Mexican government made commitments to correct its protection programs.
Photo courtesy of Thomas A. Jefferson/National Resources Defense Council