Continued illegal gill net fishing cited in push for ban on Mexican seafood
In what could be a last-ditch effort to save imperiled vaquita in the Gulf of California, conservation advocates are urging the Obama administration to launch economic sanctions against Mexico to halt that country’s trade in totoaba. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the sanctions would be justified because Mexico is violating the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) by not enforcing the ban on totoaba trade.
The June 28 letter to high level U.S. Cabinet officials is the latest step in a long-running an complex struggle to prevent extinction of vaquitas, an endangered porpoise that lives in only a small section of the upper Gulf of California. My some estimates, there may only be 60 individuals remaining.
The marine mammals aren’t hunted directly, but they become entangled and drown in illegal gill nets set for totoaba, a large sea bass which is also endangered. Totoaba are sought for their swim bladders, which in some Asian countries are believed to have medicinal properties. The bladders are worth thousands of dollars on the black market, and despite some enforcement efforts and even prosecutions in Hong Kong, the financial rewards apparently outweigh the risk of being caught for fishermen in northern Mexico.
Mexico adopted some conservation measures in 2015, but those have not stopped the totoaba trade or the vaquita’s decline. The Center’s newest action urges the secretaries of commerce and interior to act quickly to “certify” Mexico. If the secretaries agree, President Obama may then ban the import of Mexican seafood and other wildlife until the illegal totoaba trade ends.
“The facts are simple — Mexico’s failure to stop the ongoing totoaba trade violates its treaty obligations and is killing off the vaquita,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center. “The totoaba and vaquita have waited too long for effective action. It’s time to ban seafood imports until Mexico stops its destructive totoaba trade.”
In March 2016, three vaquita were found dead due to entanglement, and more than 600 illegal totoaba nets and lines have been found in the past few months within the vaquita’s Gulf of California habitat. Additionally, hundreds of of totoaba bladders have been seized both in and outside Mexico, demonstrating that the lucrative totoaba trade continues unabated.
“The vaquita needs drastic and immediate measures to ensure its survival, and there’s no doubt that the Mexican government has been ineffective in protecting the porpoise from the illegal nets set to catch the endangered totoaba,” said Alejandro Olivera, the Center’s Mexico representative. “As there is no evidence of a real national enforcement effort by Mexico, pressure from the United States is needed to speed up conservation actions.”
Both the totoaba and the vaquita are protected under CITES, and thus international, commercial trade in both species is strictly prohibited. A U.S. law called the Pelly Amendment requires the United States to officially recognize, or “certify,” any nation whose wildlife trade “diminishes the effectiveness” of the treaty. If a nation is certified, the U.S. president may embargo the import of wildlife products, including fish and other seafood, from that nation.
The United States has successfully used Pelly Amendment sanctions in the past to enforce whaling quotas and stop rhino and tiger trade in Taiwan.