With US ban on Mexican seafood imports in place, vaquita court case dismissed

Published on
April 22, 2020

A lawsuit against the U.S. government aiming to require it to enforce the Marine Mammal Protection Act in regard to the critically endangered vaquita porpoise has been dismissed after the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service expanded a ban on imports of seafood products caught in the vaquita’s habitat.

U.S. Court of International Trade Judge Gary S. Katzmann dismissed the suit at the request of the plaintiffs, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Animal Welfare Institute, on 22 March.

“Although the government had consistently objected on the merits of the import ban ordered by the court’s preliminary injunction, it changed course,” Katzmann wrote in his 14-page ruling.

Scientsts believe there are fewer than 10 vaquita remaining in the wild. U.S. law requires the country to ban the importation of seafood caught in a geographic area or with a method of fishing that would in any way endanger the vaquita or any other animal registered as an endangered species.

After initially resisting an import ban on seafood caught in Mexico’s northern Gulf of California, the NMFS, a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce, agreed to a ban of all seafood caught from four fisheries deemed to a threat to the vaquita: shrimp, curvina, sierra, and chano. The NFMS also went further and banned imports of almost all seafood caught with gillnets in the northern Gulf of California, including anchovy, herring, sardines, mackerel, croaker, and pilchard. Those bans became effective on 3 April, 2020.

In response, on 10 April, the plaintiffs in the case filed for dismissal.

“With the government acceding to the relief sought by plaintiffs in their complaint and provided by the court’s preliminary injunction – indeed now expanding the breadth of the embargo – plaintiffs seek voluntary dismissal of this action,” Katzmann wrote.

Noting the significance of the date of the resolution of the case – 22 April is recognized internationally as Earth Day – Katzmann noted the case did not address the illegal totoaba fishery, which is blamed for many of the recent vaquita deaths, and wrote, “It is undisputed that the vaquita may soon disappear from the planet forever.”

“The road to this day has been a tortuous one,” he wrote. “The vaquita remains an endangered species; every death brings it perilously close to disappearing from the planet forever. The illegal trade in the totoaba, caught in gillnets which catch and strangle the vaquita, is a matter not before this court – but the need for vigorous international enforcement against its continuing threat is a compelling one. On this Earth Day, as we ponder the imperatives of biodiversity and the environment, we would do well to heed the sobering words of Rachel Carson: ‘So delicately interwoven are the relationships that when we disturb one thread of the community fabric we alter it all -- perhaps almost imperceptibly, perhaps so drastically that destruction follows.’ The panda of the sea, the little cow, cannot be replaced.”

DJ Schubert, a wildlife biologist at the Animal Welfare Institute, told SeafoodSource via email his organization was relieved at the conclusion of the legal effort.

"The poignant, timely, and moving conclusion contained in the opinion should be a wake-up call to the world, said DJ Schubert, a wildlife biologist at the Animal Welfare Institute. "We have a responsibility to protect and conserve the biodiversity of this planet. If we fail to uphold that responsibility, we risk not just the loss of a treasured species like the vaquita but the dismantling of the ecosystems on which all life, including human life, relies," Schubert said. "The message to Mexico is clear: The country must start enforcing its laws and protect the vaquita from all gillnet fishing if it hopes to resume exports to the United States of fishery products from the Upper Gulf of California. We welcome the conclusion of this legal journey and urgently call on the government of Mexico to take immediate action to save the vaquita. We also hope that the López Obrador administration will do everything in its power to halt the illegal fishing and trade in the endangered totoaba fish.”

Photo courtesy of NOAA

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