Endangered Porpoise Given Earth Day Lifeline by Federal Judge

On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, a federal judge signed off on a settlement that bans imports of seafood from Mexico’s Gulf of California caught with nets known to kill the vaquita porpoise.

A vaquita porpoise. (Photo by Paula Olson/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

(CN) — The globe is gripped by a deadly pandemic but swimming carefree somewhere in Mexico’s Gulf of California are roughly 10 vaquitas, a species of endangered porpoise that, unbeknownst to them, scored a victory Wednesday from the U.S. Court of International Trade helping to save them from extinction. 

The Earth Day ruling from Judge Gary Katzmann puts a cap on a lengthy legal battle first launched in March 2018 by environmentalist groups who argued the U.S. government did not properly ban imports of seafood caught with gillnets, fine mesh nets that hang in water columns and are notorious for easily trapping and indiscriminately killing smaller wildlife like the 5-foot-long vaquita porpoise.

“It is undisputed that the vaquita is being caught inadvertently and tangled, strangled and drowned in the gillnets,” Katzmann wrote in his 14-page opinion. “It is undisputed that the primary threat to the vaquita is gillnet fishing within the vaquita’s range. It is undisputed that the vaquita may soon disappear from the planet forever.”

The judge’s ruling granted a motion by the environmental groups – the Natural Resources Defense Council, Center for Biological Diversity and Animal Welfare Institute – for voluntarily dismissal after settling the dispute with the government.

Surveys conducted jointly by the U.S. and Mexico from 1997 through 2017 have revealed a steady and staggering decline of the rare vaquita. Its numbers once hovered around 567 but now it is estimated that just five or 10 are left alive today.

Known as the “panda of the sea” thanks to the small dark rings encircling its even smaller darker eyes, the vaquita has seen its population nosedive since the late 1990s because of the gillnets.

“The vaquita is teetering on the verge of extinction, but the result of this lawsuit gives me hope,” Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement Wednesday.

In July 2018, a few months after the environmentalists’ complaint was filed, Judge Katzmann granted their request for an injunction to ban some seafood imports from Mexico caught with the special nets.

The U.S. government implemented the injunction but also sought to overturn it. However, the government changed course and announced a trade embargo last month that not only includes the ban sought by environmentalists, but expands it to include nearly all fish caught in the vaquita’s habitat.

“In short, plaintiffs have achieved the outcome they sought before the court in the suit they filed,” Katzmann, a Barack Obama appointee, wrote in Wednesday’s ruling.

While lauding the ruling, Uhlemann also told Courthouse News that while trade sanctions to protect wildlife are rare, the expanded import ban was something “clearly required” under terms of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. 

“The judge’s earlier ruling, combined with the obvious threat of extinction for these wonderful little animals, created immense pressure for the federal government to act,” she said. “In its earlier decision, the court found that ‘the number of permissible vaquita deaths under the [Marine Mammal Protection Act] is being exceeded, that an embargo is legally required, and that the species is at risk of extinction.’”

Katzmann waxed profound when considering the outcome of his ruling Wednesday, noting how even as “humankind is gripped by the deadly coronavirus pandemic” that serves as an “ever present brutal reminder of mortality,” it is the interconnectedness of the natural and commercialized world that still requires careful inspection.

While the vaquita benefit from the ruling, trade regulations still lack for other endangered fish in the porpoise’s habitat, like the totoaba.

“We would do well to heed the sobering words of Rachel Carson: ‘So delicately interwoven are the relationships that when we disturb one thread of the community fabric we alter it all — perhaps almost imperceptibly, perhaps so drastically that destruction follows,’” Katzmann wrote, quoting the marine biologist and author. “The panda of the sea, the little cow, cannot be replaced.”

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