WASHINGTON (CN) - A rare species of porpoises has been pushed to the brink of extinction by federal indifference, environmentalists claim in a federal lawsuit.
At the heart of the complaint is the vaquita, a small porpoise that exists only in Mexico's Upper Gulf of California.
In a complaint filed in Washington, DC on Thursday, the plaintiff Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Animal Welfare Institute describe the vaquita as one of the most endangered animal species on Earth, explaining that there are likely fewer than 30 of the mammals left.
They go on to say the "precipitous decline" of the vaquita population -- "more than 95 percent over the last 20 years" -- is attributable to a single cause: entanglement and drowning in gillnet fishing gear set to catch various commercial fish species in Mexico.
"Sadly ... scientists predict the vaquita faces extinction by 2019 if current trends continue," the complaint says.
The plaintiffs claim several federal agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Fisheries and National Marine Fisheries Service, and the departments of Treasury, Commerce and Homeland Security are helping speed the vaquita toward extinction by failing to ban the import of commercial fish caught with gillnets.
Zak Smith, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council's Marine Mammal Protection Project, said Friday that scientists have been concerned about the status of the vaquita for decades and actually attempted to initiate a recovery effort, with the support of the Mexican government, in the late 1990s.
However, the effort was never well-funded and it proved difficult to get the necessary numbers of staff and volunteers to work on it on an long-term basis.
"The promises never really materialized," Smith said. "The vaquita continued to decline."
Desperate, scientists concluded the remaining vaquitas would be better off -- safer -- living in captivity than in the wild, but the capture efforts failed and was called off after one of the few captured porpoises died.
"So now there’s nothing left to do for them except to make the wild less deadly for them, and that means keeping their habitat as gillnet free as possible," Smith said.
In May, the plaintiffs filed an emergency petition asking federal regulators to ban the import of fish caught in gillnets, but to date, they say, the government has been unresponsive.
The plaintiffs contend this lack of response is a clear violation of the Administrative Procedure Act. They are asking the federal court to compel the defendant departments to respond to the petition.
“What we hope to accomplish with this lawsuit is have the United States of America ban imports of vaquita harmful fish and fish products from Mexico," Smith said. "The only way these products will get back into the United States is when Mexico can show they can live up to U.S. standards, which would be a showing that the vaquita is on the path of recovery.”
Representatives of the Department of Homeland Security and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declined to comment on the grounds the lawsuit is ongoing litigation.
Representatives of the other defendant department and agencies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
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