US President Joe Biden to decide whether to ban Mexican wildlife imports following vaquita ruling

U.S. President Joe Biden.

U.S. President Joe Biden will decide by August 2023 whether to impose an embargo on Mexican wildlife products, following a ruling from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the Central American nation is not doing enough to protect the critically endangered vaquita porpoise.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced on Friday, 26 May 2023 Mexico is not doing enough to prevent the fishing and trade of the endangered totoaba, resulting in the killing of vaquita, of which an estimated 10 remain alive on Earth. That finding places Mexico in breach of the Pelly Amendment, a U.S. law that requires federal action against countries found to be violating the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Under the law, Biden needs to decide by mid-August whether to take action against Mexico, including imposing a trade embargo, or publicly explain why he’s not taking action. According to Sea Shepherd and other environmental groups, illegal fishing continues in the vaquita’s habitat, with at least 69 vessels reported likely fishing with gillnets in an area designated as a vaquita refuge over a two-day period in late April.

According to a press release from the three environmental NGOs, totoaba fishing has now ended for the season, “but deadly gillnets will return to the vaquita’s habitat for the September shrimp season unless Mexico cracks down.”
“Mexico has failed the vaquita and ignored its obligations under international law, so this step is crucial,” Center for Biological Diversity International Program Director Sarah Uhlemann said. “No one relishes painful trade sanctions, but without strong, immediate pressure from the international community, there’s a good chance we’ll lose this shy little porpoise forever.”

The action comes following a 2022 lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Animal Welfare Institute, partially resolved in April 2023 when the U.S. Department of the Interior agreed as part of a settlement with the environmental groups to make a decision on the issue by 19 May, with a public announcement to be made by 3 June.

If Biden chooses to expand a ban on Mexican imports beyond just wildlife products covered under CITES to encompass all imports from Mexico, he must give Congress at least a 60-day notice by law.

“Today’s decision is yet another signal to Mexico that its actions to stop illegal fishing to protect the vaquita are inadequate, and that the country must substantively escalate its efforts to fully implement and enforce its laws,” Animal Welfare Institute Wildlife Biologist DJ Schubert said. “Scientists have confirmed that the vaquita can recover – but only if gillnets are permanently banned in its habitat in the Upper Gulf.”

In March 2023, the CITES Secretariat itself took action against Mexico in the matter, announced sanctions, which were lifted in April 2023 after the Mexican government pledged to create a plan to protect the vaquita and totoaba from illegal fishing.

 “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s certification of Mexico is long overdue and its neglect to move faster has contributed to the vaquita’s near extinction,” Natural Resources Defense Council Global Biodiversity Conservation Director Zak Smith said. “President Biden must make amends for lost time by issuing the strongest import ban necessary to compel Mexico to take actions that will guarantee the vaquita’s survival.”

There is precedent for Biden to implement a ban on Mexican wildlife imports. In 1994, the administration of then-U.S. President Bill Clinton banned wildlife imports from Taiwan after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined it was complicit in the illegal trade of rhino and tiger parts in violation of the CITES accord.

“In response, Taiwan promptly shuttered its domestic markets where these parts were sold and tightened enforcement of its wildlife protection laws,” the groups said.

Photo courtesy of Trevor Bexon/Shutterstock


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