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US Fish and Wildlife certifies Mexico’s failure to protect vaquita marina

Stemming from a 2014 petition, the certification was a long time coming, conservationists said, highlighting how many vaquitas died while it “languished” in bureaucracy.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — President Joe Biden must now consider sanctioning Mexico for noncompliance with an international wildlife treaty after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service certified that country's failure to curb the illegal fishing that is wiping out the vaquita marina. 

The illicit fishing operation powering the black market for totoaba swim bladders is threatening the existence of the world’s smallest porpoise, the vaquita marina, which gets caught and drowns in totoaba gill nets. 

Prized in traditional Chinese medicine for its alleged salubrious qualities, the totoaba’s swim bladder has been dubbed the “cocaine of the sea.” It averages thousands of dollars per pound on the black market, and financial speculation has been observed to bring that price as high as $45,000 a pound.

This trade “diminishes the effectiveness of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a treaty for the conservation of endangered or threatened species,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a pair of letters sent to both houses of Congress Friday. The USFWS is an agency in the Department of the Interior.

Both the totoaba and the vaquita marina are protected under CITES, but the situation is dire for the latter. Scientists estimate that as few as eight could be left.

The Pelly Amendment to the Fisherman’s Protective Act of 1967 requires the secretary to notify Congress of the issue after having notified the president, which Haaland did on May 18, the letters state.

The body of a dead animal believed to be a vaquita, a critically endangered species of porpoise, floats in the ocean after being found in an illegal totoaba net recovered on March 12, 2019, by Sea Shepherd in the Gulf of California off of Mexico. The environmentalist group Sea Shepherd said Thursday that it found the badly decomposed body of what appeared to be a vaquita porpoise, one of perhaps only 10 that remain in the world. (Sea Shepherd via AP)

The Biden administration has 60 days from that date to decide if it will impose sanctions on Mexico for failing to rein in the illegal totoaba trade. 

In late March, CITES placed sanctions on Mexico, restricting global trade on other protected wildlife products that the country exports, such as crocodile leather, mahogany timber, exotic pets and certain plants.

While the notification was not unexpected, it was significant in that it forces the Biden administration to act, according to Lorenzo Rojas Bracho, the world’s leading vaquita marina biologist and conservationist. 

But sanctions could have unintended consequences, as their effects are unlikely to impact illegal fishermen.

“Mexico has not done what they say they are doing, so — sadly — it’s the fishermen that do things correctly who are going to be affected,” he told Courthouse News.

Still, any negative effects sanctions may have on legal fishermen will not be widespread in the Upper Gulf of California. There just aren’t many left.

“You can hardly find legal fishing in the Upper Gulf nowadays,” said Rojas Bracho.

A totoaba carcass, netting and other dead marine animals and detritus sit atop a pile of garbage in an empty lot across the street from the entrance to the spillway where totoaba fisherman put in their boats each afternoon in San Felipe. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

Friday’s certification came in response to a 2014 petition and 2022 lawsuit filed by conservation organizations to compel the Department of the Interior to take action under the Pelly Amendment. 

Conservationists from several organizations noted in a press release issued after the certification that the vaquita’s population dropped from around 100 to “roughly 10” while the petition “languished” in the USFWS bureaucracy for years.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s certification of Mexico is long overdue and its neglect to move faster has contributed to the vaquita’s near extinction,” said Zak Smith of the National Resources Defense Council. 

The press release mentioned a successful application of sanctions under the Pelly Amendment from 1994, when the Clinton administration sanctioned Taiwan for trade in rhino and tiger parts, prompting the country to close markets and tighten enforcement of wildlife protection laws. 

Drastic action and a complete ban on gill net fishing in the Upper Gulf of California are what it will take to save the vaquita, according to D.J. Schubert, a wildlife biologist with the Animal Welfare Institute also cited in the press release. 

“Today’s decision is yet another signal to Mexico that its actions to stop illegal fishing to protect the vaquita are inadequate, and that the country must substantively escalate its efforts to fully implement and enforce its laws,” said Schubert. 

“Scientists have confirmed that the vaquita can recover,” he added, “but only if gill nets are permanently removed from its habitat in the Upper Gulf.”

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