Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, January 5, 2017

Contact:  Sarah Uhlemann, +1-206-327-2344,
Alejandro Olivera, +521-61-2104-0604, (en español)    

Lawsuit Threatened Over U.S. Failure to Sanction Mexico for Illegal Totoaba Trade, Vaquita Decline

Washington— The U.S.-based Center for Biological Diversity formally threatened legal action today to force the United States to sanction Mexico over illegal fishing that has caused the drastic decline of vaquita, a tiny porpoise with as few as 30 individuals remaining in the wild. The lawsuit will seek a “certification” from the United States that Mexico's illegal totoaba fishing and trade violates and “diminishes the effectiveness” of a wildlife trade treaty. If Mexico is certified, the incoming Trump administration can sanction the country by prohibiting lucrative shrimp and other wildlife imports.

“Vaquita are dying and Mexico is standing idly by, ignoring this tragedy,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center. “The vaquita is about to vanish from the Earth, so the time for diplomacy has passed. Aggressive measures are needed to force action from Mexico.”

The vaquita is the world's smallest porpoise and exists only in Mexico's northern Gulf of California. Vaquita are killed by becoming entangled in fishing nets, particularly in gillnets set illegally to catch totoaba — huge fish highly sought after for their swim bladders, used in China to make a soup believed to boost fertility and improve skin.

Scientists announced in December that only around 30 vaquita remain and the species may be extinct in two years. Despite claims of increased enforcement, Mexico's illegal totoaba fishing has continued largely unchecked. Three vaquita were found dead in March due to entanglement, and a recent sweep revealed dozens of active totoaba nets in just one small area off the coast. Mexican authorities now plan to capture the few remaining vaquita and temporarily hold the animals until Mexico finally and effectively ends all gillnet fishing in the upper Gulf.

Under an American law called the “Pelly Amendment,” the U.S. secretaries of the Interior and Commerce must “certify” any nation that “diminishes the effectiveness” of a wildlife treaty. Both totoaba and vaquita are protected under 1973 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and international, commercial trade in both species is banned.

In 2014 the Center filed a petition requesting that the United States certify Mexico for violating CITES for its totoaba trade, which diminishes the treaty's effectiveness in protecting both totoaba and vaquita.

“The United States has the legal authority and the moral duty to take aggressive action against Mexico, including instituting an economically painful shrimp embargo,” said Uhlemann. “The vaquita's very existence depends on immediate and dramatic action by both nations.”

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.1 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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