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Mexico sanctioned for not doing enough to protect endangered porpoises

There are only about 10 vaquita porpoises left in their sole habitat, Mexico's Gulf of California.

(CN) — A trade authority slapped Mexico with sanctions Monday for failing to stop illegal fishing that advocates of vaquita porpoises say has almost made the species extinct.

Endemic to and only found in the upper Gulf of California, also called the Sea of Cortez, the population of vaquita has dropped from around 600 in the 1990s to only about 10, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

Vaquita, named for the Spanish word for little cow, are the world’s most critically endangered mammal and smallest porpoise, growing no larger than 5 feet in length.

Their numbers have dwindled because they get entangled and drown in illegal nets Mexican fishermen use to catch shrimp and fish, including the totoaba, a large fish whose swim bladders are considered a health-improving delicacy in China and sell for $20,000 to $80,000 per kilogram or more on the Chinese black market.

Mexico placed totoaba on its endangered species list in 1975, making it illegal to catch them. But that did not stop fishermen from snaring them with illicit gillnets thanks to demand from China. So the Mexican government established a zero tolerance zone in 2017, banning all fishing in an area where vaquitas had been sighted.

Mexico imposed new fishing regulations for the upper Gulf of California in September 2020, in response to a ban the U.S. government implemented in March 2020 on the import of products from Mexican fisheries operating in the vaquita’s habitat.

But Mexico weakened its rules in the summer of 2021 by relaxing enforcement of its fishing ban in the exclusion zone, drawing a rebuke from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES.

The convention was established in the 1970s and now boasts a voluntary membership of 184 countries and protects more than 40,900 species—6,610 animal species and 34,310 plant species—against extinction by forcing sellers and buyers of covered species to obtain permits and certificates before they can execute any transactions.

Due to Mexico’s backsliding on vaquita conservation, CITES, at a November 2022 meeting, gave the country until Feb. 28 to come up with a protection plan for the porpoise.

Finding the final draft of a compliance action plan Mexico submitted on Feb. 27 inadequate, the secretariat of the Geneva-based group announced Monday that Mexico is barred from exporting any CITES-listed species or products made from them.

“There are nearly 3,150 Mexican animals and plants listed under CITES, and many of these species are exported. These include lucrative products such as crocodile leather, mahogany, tarantulas, pet reptiles, cacti and other plants,” the Center for Biological Diversity said in a statement.

Orchid and cactus varieties account for the bulk of Mexico's listed species.

While Mexico’s trade in these species is a pittance compared to the billions in revenue it generates yearly from its top exports – cars, computers, motor vehicle parts and accessories and delivery trucks – the center says CITES’ sanctions will cost Mexico millions of dollars in trade of wildlife products.

Mexico’s economy ministry did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

According to the center, vaquita advocates who watch over the zero tolerance area in the Gulf of California, where only law enforcement and research vessels are allowed, observed eight vessels illegally fishing there earlier this month.

“The government of Mexico has only itself to blame for these long-overdue sanctions as multiple administrations have shamefully failed to protect the vaquita — the country’s only endemic cetacean species — from dying in illegal gillnets,” DJ Schubert, wildlife biologist at the Animal Welfare Institute, said in a press release.

The Center for Biological Diversity, the Animal Welfare Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council Inc. are also pressuring the U.S. government to impose sanctions against Mexico.

They sued the Interior Department and its Secretary Deb Haaland last December asking the agency to “certify” Mexico for sanctions under an amendment to the Fishermen’s Protective Act of 1967 due to its failure to stop international trade in totoaba.

The environmental groups say the certification would authorize President Joe Biden to prohibit importation of any products from Mexico.

Categories:Business, Environment, Government, International

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