Conservationists seeking to save a nearly extinct porpoise species scored a victory in federal court on Thursday, 26 July, when a judge ordered the United States to stop accepting imported seafood from Mexico if it was caught using gillnets.
The temporary injunction ordered by Judge Gary S. Katzman, a judge in the U.S. Court of International Trade, forbids the country from accepting imports from commercial fisheries that use gillnets in the northern part of the Gulf of California, which is home to the vaquita.
“It is undisputed that the cause of the vaquita’s precipitous decline is its inadvertent tangling, strangulation, and drowning in gillnets, which are fishing nets hung in the water to entangle fish and shrimp,” Katzman wrote in his order.
In February, the Elephant Action League reported there were only about a dozen of the tiny marine mammals remaining. Conservationists fear the vaquita, which typically grows to about 4.5 feet in length, may become extinct within three years as the stock loses roughly half its population each year due to encounters with gillnets.
A month later, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Animal Welfare Institute, and the Center for Biological Diversity filed the lawsuit against federal officials – including Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Chris Oliver, the administrator for NOAA Fisheries – arguing that the Marine Mammal Protection Act includes covering endangered species outside of U.S. waters.
“A ban on gillnet-caught seafood from Mexico’s Gulf of California is the life line the vaquita desperately needs,” said Giulia Good Stefani, an NRDC attorney, in a press release. “Collectively, our organizations have spent over a decade working to save the vaquita—and never has extinction felt so close—but now, the world’s smallest and most endangered porpoise has what may be its very last chance.”
The NRDC estimates the effected fisheries caught more than 1,400 tons of shrimp, Spanish mackerel, and bigeye croaker in 2017, and those imports had a value of about USD 16 million (EUR 13.7 million).
A NOAA Fisheries spokeswoman told SeafoodSource last week that the agency is examining the judge’s order.
“With vaquitas on the brink of extinction, these economic sanctions are painful but necessary to push Mexican officials to finally protect these little porpoises,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “For 20 years, the Mexican government has promised to save the vaquita but failed to take meaningful action. That must change, or we’ll lose these animals forever.”
The order also comes at a time when the California state legislature consider banning the use of gillnets in its waters for swordfishing. Proponents of the ban say the nets cause bycatch as non-targeted species like turtles, porpoises, and other wildlife are injured or killed in their encounters with them.
A Mexican fisherman told the Los Angeles Times that the nets they use don’t kill the critically endangered porpoise. If they can’t sell to the United States, then they will look to other markets, such as China.
American businesses and restaurants may be the biggest ones impacted by the order, fisherman Sunshine Rodriguez said, “because they're not going to have access to white wild shrimp at a decent price.”