Trade Court Orders White House to Step Up Porpoise Protections

(CN) – The world’s smallest and most endangered porpoise, often caught in gillnets by commercial fisherman, was given another chance at survival Thursday after a court ordered the Trump administration to ban seafood from countries where the net is still used.

The vaquita porpoise is just five feet long and weighs roughly 100 pounds. The porpoise is on the brink of extinction with just 15 to 30 of the rare species estimated alive today.

According to a 49-page filing at the International Trade Court in New York, Judge Gary Katzman said the species status is so precarious that “even one mortality could increase the likelihood of extinction.”

Without any close relatives left on earth, Katzman wrote, the end of the vaquita “would represent a disproportionate loss of biodiversity, unique evolutionary history and the potential for future evolution.”

In March, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Animal Welfare Institute filed a joint lawsuit against the Department of Commerce, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Department of the Treasury and the Department of Homeland Security, claiming the agencies’ mutual failure to ban the import of commercial fish caught with gillnets, was exacerbating the vaquita’s voyage to extinction.

According to Katzman, the agencies failed to enforce regulations codified in the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act.  Further, he said, the government acknowledged in their own response to the March complaint that the vaquita “may soon disappear from the planet forever” and that the primary threat to the vaquita is gillnet fishing.

In a statement Thursday, Giulia Good Stefani, a staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, described Katzman’s order reinforcing the ban on gillnet-caught seafood from Mexico’s Gulf of California as “the life line the vaquita desperately needs.”

The vaquita is found only in Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California. Its range spans just 4,000-square kilometers which overlap areas where commercial fisheries trawl for other seafood like shrimp, curvina, chano and sierra.

“In 1997, a cooperative Mexican-American survey sampled the entire geographical range of the vaquita and estimated a population size of 567,” Katzman wrote.

But a February 2017 report revealed that vaquita population studies from 2011 to 2016 showed years of illegal gillnet fishing had ravaged the porpoise: their numbers declined by 90 percent during that five year period alone.

In November 2016, a taskforce created by the Mexican government to study and protect the porpoise, Comité Internacional para la Recuperación de la Vaquita, or CIRVA, found just 30 vaquita alive in the region.

This January, CIRVA published another report which found that despite Mexico’s own regulatory efforts, “high levels” of illegal gillnet fishing had continued.

“A net-removal campaign conducted in 2016 and 2017 found almost 400 illegal nets, including active curvina, shrimp, and totoaba gillnets, in just the small portion of the vaquita’s habitat that was searched,” Katzman wrote.

Gillnets are mesh nets, typically hung vertically in a water column to catch fish that swim through it. Though they come in various sizes and can be retrieved easily, gillnets “kill discriminately” Katzman wrote, except for animals small enough to pass through them.

The U.S. permits the use of gillnets in some states but it is banned in others.

Mexico permanently banned most gillnets in the vaquita’s habitat in June 2017 but exempted their use for the fishing of curvina and sierra.

The government agencies claimed no real injury was established by the conservation groups in their complaint.  They claimed plaintiffs “never actually [saw] a vaquita on their trips” to the Gulf and that their “esthetic or recreational enjoyment [was] merely subjective rather than objective”

Further, the claim was invalid, they argued, because the only “relevant” fishing season had passed before plaintiffs planned to return” and because some of the plaintiffs had no plans to visit the vaquita habitat in the future.

Katzman didn’t agree, saying that it didn’t matter if anyone has managed to view a vaquita yet, nor “does the government have the authority for the distinction it drew at oral argument between subjective and objective harms to recreational and aesthetic enjoyment.”

As for illegal fishing, the government argued redress was impossible since many vaquitas deaths result from illegal nets used in the already illegal fishing of endangered totoaba fish.

“The evidence shows that legal gillnet fisheries have caused vaquita deaths, and even if a gillnet ban catalyzed by an embargo only reduced rather than eliminated gillnet use in the vaquita’s habitat, such a harm reduction would be sufficient to establish standing, particularly in light of the fact that every vaquita death increases the likelihood that the species will go extinct,” Katzman wrote.

In the spirit of the “public interest,” Katzman ordered the Treasury to ban the import of fish and fish products from northern Gulf fisheries using gillnets which incidentally kill vaquita.

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