Saving the Endangered Vaquita Porpoise

02 March 2015 | Center for Biological Diversity News Release

WASHINGTON— In an effort to protect the critically endangered vaquita porpoise, the government of Mexico this weekend proposed a two-year ban on the use of gillnets in the northern Gulf of California. The vaquita is found nowhere else in the world and has been driven to near extinction as a result of drowning in fishing nets. Scientists predict the vaquita, which numbers fewer than 100 individuals, could be extinct by 2018 if drastic and immediate action is not taken.

While Mexico’s gillnet ban is an important step forward in vaquita conservation, it will be unlikely to prevent extinction of the species unless there is a lasting commitment to rigorous enforcement to stop illegal fishing. Previous similar pronouncements by Mexico have gone largely unenforced and have failed to stem the decline of the species. The two-year ban, which is expected to begin in early April, is also not sufficient time to allow the vaquita to recover.

“The vaquita is in need of urgent action to prevent its extinction, and while we’re pleased that Mexico’s finally moving forward with a long-overdue gillnet ban, there are few indications government officials will see that it is actually implemented or maintained,” said Brendan Cummings, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity.

For more than two decades, scientists have been urging a reduction in the use of gillnets in vaquita habitat, which kill the animals after they get entangled in the fishing gear. The new ban targets legal shrimp fisheries, which export their product to the United States, and illegal totoaba fishing, which supplies swim bladders to China as an ingredient in a medicinal soup. Both fisheries have devastated the vaquita, with half of the remaining population disappearing in the last three years.

“The governments of Mexico, China and the United States must work together to save the vaquita, as each country is contributing to its demise. We call on Mexico to strengthen its law enforcement efforts, and for all three countries to aggressively prosecute totoaba smugglers,” said Susan Millward, executive director of the Animal Welfare Institute. “We also urge the United States to use all available tools, including economic sanctions, to ensure an end to the totoaba trade.”

The ban announcement came in response to growing international attention and outrage over the plight of the vaquita, including calls for trade sanctions against Mexico and a possible boycott of Mexican shrimp.

“Mexico’s ban will either mark the moment the tide turned in vaquita conservation or it will be the bookend to a sad history of government failure and mismanagement as another species slid into extinction,” said Zak Smith, staff attorney with the Natural Resource Defense Council’s Marine Mammals Protection Project. “The vaquita’s future is entirely in our hands and we can save it with the right political will.”

The United States imported roughly 569,000 metric tons of shrimp in 2014, including 20,235 metric tons from Mexico. In September 2014, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the Obama administration under the Pelly Amendment to the Fishermen’s Protective Act to impose trade sanctions on Mexico to compel compliance with international regulations protecting the totoaba from illegal international trade.

Contacts:Brendan Cummings, (760) 366-2232, bcummings@biologicaldiversity.org
Amey Owen, (202) 446-2128, amey@awionline.org
Kimiko Martinez, (310) 434-2344, kmartinez@nrdc.org


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