Mexico is home to a stunning array of wildlife and wild places. But for too many species there, extinction is a very real prospect. That's why in August 2015, the Center opened our first office outside the United States in La Paz, Mexico.
For years the Center has sought the protection of cross-border species like Mexican wolves and jaguars, as well as condors and black-footed ferrets. The Center is also working to save the critically endangered vaquita porpoise, a species with only about 50 animals remaining, from fishing nets in the Gulf of California, and we've advocated to stop the massive bycatch of endangered loggerhead sea turtles off Baja California Sur through pressure both in Mexico and in the United States.
Mexico's animals and plants are at a critical juncture. Having a Center representative on the ground in Mexico, advocating for species every day, will give us exciting new opportunities to prevent the tragedy of extinction.
OUR MAJOR CAMPAIGNS
Mexico's Gulf of California hosts 891 species of fish and a third of the world's cetacean species, including the vaquita — the most endangered porpoise on Earth, of which scientists recently determined there may be fewer than 50 left, down from 200 in 2012. Their biggest threat is bycatch by fishing nets set for shrimp and giant fish called totoaba (which are also endangered).
This porpoise is also the smallest cetacean on Earth, less than 5 feet long and no more than 120 pounds. Gray on top and off-white on its belly, it has a pronounced dark patch around its mouth, large black eye rings and a dark line running from its chin to the base of its flippers. The vaquita has a classic porpoise shape, yet compared with its relatives, the species has slightly larger flippers; a smaller skull; and a taller, more curved tail fin.
Mexico announced a two-year ban on gillnets in the Gulf to protect the vaquita, but the remote Gulf has been challenging to police, and Mexico has a sad history of failing to follow through with enforcement of protections. So the Center petitioned the United States under a U.S. law called the Pelly Amendment to institute trade sanctions against Mexico if it doesn't crack down on the criminal totoaba trade threatening the world's last few vaquitas. Those sanctions could include a ban on the import of shrimp from Mexico.
We're also petitioning the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to place the Gulf of California on its World Heritage “in danger” list, which would give Mexico more funding for vaquita protection, along with international assistance for this extraordinary porpoise.
Named for their large heads, loggerhead sea turtles have reddish-brown, slightly heart-shaped top shells and powerful jaws used to open hard-shelled prey.
Loggerheads inhabit temperate and tropical oceans around the globe, but the North Pacific Ocean loggerhead population nests only in Japan; after hatching, juvenile sea turtles swim more than 7,500 miles across the Pacific to foraging grounds off Mexico — most notably Baja California Sur, a key juvenile foraging area. After spending several years in the eastern North Pacific, mature turtles migrate back to their natal beaches in Japan for reproduction.
Nesting of the North Pacific population has declined between 50 to 90 percent, and over the past decade scientists have documented extremely high levels of sea turtle bycatch mortality off Baja California Sur due to high use by small-scale fisheries, which kill more than 2,000 sea turtles yearly. This region is considered a global bycatch hotspot.
The Center has worked to protect this endangered loggerhead population in both the United States and Mexico. With allies we've petitioned for trade sanctions against Mexico to rein in its massive turtle bycatch under the Pelly Amendment. Our petition asks the United States to officially “certify” that Mexico's sea turtle bycatch “diminishes the effectiveness” of the Inter-American Convention for the Protection and Conservation of Sea Turtles. Under this treaty, Mexico and the United States (and other nations) have committed to reduce bycatch to “greatest extent practicable” — yet it remains substantially unregulated in Mexico.
After Center litigation, in August 2015 the National Marine Fisheries Service issued Mexico a negative certification for not adopting a regulatory program comparable to that of the United States to address bycatch of North Pacific loggerheads in Baja California Sur under the High Seas Driftnet Fishing Moratorium Protection Act. So it's now up to the White House to decide on a penalty, which can range from a trade embargo on fisheries that interact directly with the turtles in the Gulf of Ulloa to more drastic measures, such as closing imports of Mexican seafood and other wildlife products.
The Center is also responsible for reclassifying loggerheads from “threatened” to the more protective “endangered” status under the Endangered Species Act, and a Center lawsuit has resulted in a U.S. proposal to protect more than 739 miles of “critical habitat” on both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. We'll continue our work to ensure that real and permanent protections are given to these beautiful, unique marine reptiles.