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U.S. says Mexico failed to uphold international treaty protecting vaquita porpoise

  • The United States said the government of Mexico has failed to stem the illegal harvest and commercial export of totoaba, which has directly impacted the vaquita.
  • The vaquita has dwindled to around just 10 specimens in recent years, the result of getting caught in gillnets targeting totoaba, whose swim bladder is treasured on the Chinese black market.
  • US law allows for an embargo on wildlife trade when a country isn’t doing enough to combat illegal activity. However, it isn’t clear that President Joe Biden will take that step.

MEXICO CITY — The U.S. has opened up the possibility of imposing a trade embargo on Mexico due to its failure to stop illegal fishing in the Gulf of California, where the endemic vaquita has been pushed to the brink of extinction.

The vaquita (Phocoena sinus), famous for being the world’s smallest porpoise, has dwindled to around just 10 specimens in recent years, the result of getting caught in gillnets targeting totoaba, a fish whose swim bladder is treasured on the Chinese black market.

“Despite international protections and commitments, the government of Mexico has failed to stem the illegal harvest and commercial export of totoaba,” said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland in a May 26 notification letter to congress. “This illicit trade has direct negative impacts on the survival of the vaquita.”

Both the vaquita and totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi) are protected by Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which prohibits the commercial trade of species threatened with extinction.

There are only about 10 vaquitas left in the Gulf of California. (Photo courtesy of NOAA)

Because illegal fishing and trade has continued, Haaland said Mexico has diminished the “effectiveness” of CITES, which could require the US to take action as a party member to the treaty. Although her letter didn’t explicitly mention an embargo, U.S. law allows for an embargo on wildlife trade when a country isn’t doing enough to combat illegal activity.

President Joe Biden has 60 days from the date of Haaland’s first letter, sent on May 18, to notify congress of any action he wants to take.

Earlier this year, CITES sanctioned Mexico for its failure to regulate the illegal fishing and wildlife trade.

“No one relishes painful trade sanctions,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “But without strong, immediate pressure from the international community, there’s a good chance we’ll lose this shy little porpoise forever.”

The U.S. imported around $798 million of fishery products from Mexico last year, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

If the Biden administration goes through with an embargo, it wouldn’t be the first time the U.S. has pressured a foreign country to uphold its obligations to CITES. Former President Bill Clinton banned Taiwan wildlife imports in 1994 in response to its failure to comply with regulations on the rhino and tiger trade. In response, Taiwan cracked down on its domestic markets and tightened its wildlife protections.

Mexico’s navy reported earlier this year that it had arrested several top-level wildlife traffickers around the Gulf of California. But some conservationists say the efforts haven’t been enough — and that any sanctions that come from the U.S. might be insufficient, too.

“To be useful, this should have been done five years ago when we still had a dozen vaquitas,” Andrea Crosta, the Executive Director and Co-Founder of Earth League International, told Mongabay. “Now I’m afraid it’s too late.”

Banner image: A vaquita (Phocoena sinus). Photo courtesy of IUCN.

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Mexico dismantles illegal fishing cartels killing off rare vaquita porpoise

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