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Environmentalists sue Interior Department in push to save critically endangered porpoise

The vaquita is on the brink of extinction as a consequence of Mexican fishermen ensnaring them while illegally catching fish whose bladders are an expensive delicacy in China.

(CN) — Environmental groups sued the Interior Department on Wednesday seeking sanctions against Mexico for failing to crack down on illegal fishing imperiling vaquita porpoises, whose population in the Gulf of California has declined from around 600 in the late 1990s to just 10.

The world’s most critically endangered marine mammal and smallest porpoise, reaching lengths of about 5 feet, vaquita are endemic to Mexico’s Gulf of California, also called the Sea of Cortez, and named after the Spanish word for little cow.

Their status is a consequence of a large fish that shares their habitat, the totoaba.

Part of the drum family, the totoaba's swim bladders are considered a delicacy in China with medicinal properties that can increase fertility and circulation and treat skin problems. They fetch eye-popping prices of up to $100,000 per kilogram.

Though Mexico made it illegal to catch totoaba in 1975 by placing the fish on its endangered species list, the practice continues and has picked up over the last decade with demand from China.

Mexican fishermen use illicit gillnets to catch totoaba and vaquita get caught in the nets and drown, as do whales and sea turtles, despite the Mexican government’s establishment of a permanent gillnet exclusion zone in 2017.

For eight years now, the Center for Biological Diversity has been lobbying the federal government to impose trade sanctions against Mexico for not protecting the porpoise species.

In 2014, the center sent a so-called Pelly petition, which takes its name from an amendment to the Fishermen’s Protective Act of 1967, to the Interior Department asking its secretary to “certify” Mexico as out of compliance with an international wildlife treaty for not stopping illegal totoaba fishing in the Gulf of California.

According to conservationists, such a certification would authorize President Joe Biden to prohibit importation of any products from Mexico.

Tired of waiting for a response, the center sued the Interior Department and its Secretary Deb Haaland on Wednesday in the U.S. Court of International Trade, joined by the Animal Welfare Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The environmental groups claim Interior’s lack of response violates the Administrative Procedure Act and seek judgment ordering it to issue one within 30 days.

This delay cannot continue with so few vaquitas remaining, the plaintiffs say, and it is inexplicable given the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, part of Interior, told the Center for Biological Diversity in an April 2017 letter it anticipated finishing its investigation of the group's Pelly petition within four or five months but has yet do so.

“More than eight years have passed since the Pelly petition was first filed and more than five years have passed since the Service stated it would complete its investigation within a matter of months,” the lawsuit states.

The Fish and Wildlife Service did not respond to a message seeking comment on the lawsuit.

With their numbers so low, vaquitas seem in need of a captive breeding program or other human interventions to save the species.

But an effort in 2017 by the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita and the Mexican government failed miserably.

The team deployed four trained U.S. Navy dolphins to herd vaquita into a seapen with the goal of releasing them in a part of the Gulf of California cleared of gillnets. They corralled two vaquita – a calf they released due to its signs of extreme stress, and an adult female that died before they could relocate it.

D.J. Schubert, a wildlife biologist with the Animal Welfare Institute, said the organization was opposed to that program from the start: “We expressed concerns that vaquita might suffer that stress-related reaction to handling in captivity and we were sorry to see we were proven correct.”

“Some marine mammals, some porpoises, some dolphins can be brought into captivity … and they can breed in captivity and some just can’t. And it’s very clear that vaquita porpoises fall into that latter category,” he said in a phone interview.

The Center for Biological Diversity focused on the impact of a potential U.S. ban on seafood exports from Mexico in a press release about its lawsuit, stating, “The U.S. market represents around 40% of the value of all Mexican fishery exports; crustaceans, fish and mollusks worth nearly $600 million were exported to the United States in 2021.”

But if Mexico is certified by the Interior Department for violating the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora—an agreement that took effect in 1975 and 184 nations have signed onto—under the Pelly amendment, President Biden would have wide latitude on what kind of sanctions to impose. It would not be limited to seafood, Schubert noted.

“The president could impose sanctions on any number of products from the government of Mexico,” he said.

“We will make it clear to the White House they have this authority to broadly tailor sanctions to meet the seriousness of this issue. And when dealing with the potential extinction of a species, we are confident the highest and strongest sanctions are the most appropriate sanctions,” he added.

Despite their gloomy outlook, the green groups say there is hope vaquita can recover but illegal gillnetting of totoaba by Mexican fishermen has to end.

"During recent surveys, scientists observed vaquita calves, demonstrating that vaquita are continuing to reproduce," the complaint states. "A recent survey concluded that the vaquita population remains genetically healthy enough for the species to recover if gillnetting ends."

The U.S. government has punished Mexico before for not safeguarding vaquita. In March 2020, it "banned the import of products from Mexican fisheries operating in the vaquita’s habitat," leading Mexico to impose new regulations in September 2020 on fishing in the upper Gulf of California, the lawsuit states.

Schubert said the strict regulations made nonprofits believe Mexico was finally getting serious about saving vaquitas. "They’re exceptional regulations on paper. The problem is they’re not being enforced," he said.

Mexico has also claimed in reports it has thousands of law enforcement in the region, on land and water, to stop illegal totoaba fishing.

Yet according to Schubert, "There’s undeniable evidence that we’re receiving virtually every day of illegal fishing continuing to occur."

If Mexico lacks the resources to protect vaquitas, Schubert said, it should ask for help.

“We think Mexico has the capacity to stop illegal fishing, it’s just not using that capacity," he opined. "For whatever reason: political, financial, or otherwise. If it doesn’t have the capacity then we think, particularly given the vaquita is on the precipice of extinction, that it should reach out to other countries seeking assistance."

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