Court of Appeals Upholds US Ban on Mexican Seafood Imports to Save Vaquita

WASHINGTON, DC, Nov. 28, 2018 – In a victory for one of Earth’s most endangered marine mammals, a federal court sided with conservationists today and, for the third time, upheld a four-month-old ban on the United States importing Mexican shrimp and other seafood caught with gillnets that drown vaquita porpoises.

Rejecting a Trump administration legal challenge, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit confirmed a preliminary order implementing a federal law that requires a ban on seafood imported from Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California and caught with gillnets that threaten the vaquita porpoise. Gillnets kill about 50 percent of the rapidly dwindling vaquita population every year.

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“The US government is wasting its time and money trying to reverse the court’s order, which will only accelerate the extinction of the critically endangered vaquita,” said DJ Schubert, a wildlife biologist for the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI). “It’s time for the government to accept the courts’ decisions, ensure full implementation of the ban, and continue to work with the government of Mexico to save the vaquita.”

Conservation groups, including AWI, initially filed suit in the US Court of International Trade in New York City in March and secured a preliminary ban in July on seafood imports from Mexico caught with gillnets that kill the vaquita. The departments of Commerce, Treasury and Homeland Security, which are charged with banning imports that are contributing to the vaquita’s extinction, have tried and failed to modify or undo the import ban three times.

“The federal agencies charged with protecting the vaquita should focus their resources on saving the last of these animals, rather than continuing to lose in the courtroom,” said Giulia Good Stefani, staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “Immediate pressure on Mexico to ban all gillnets in the upper gulf and to clear the area of illegal nets is necessary now for the vaquita’s survival.”

“This victory helps US consumers fight the vaquita’s extinction,” added Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The seafood embargo will force Mexico to finally remove dangerous gillnets and save these graceful porpoises before it’s too late.”

Today’s decision is critical to the survival of the estimated 15 remaining vaquita. Vaquita are now relegated to only one place on the planet — the upper Gulf of California. Fishing with gillnets is driving the vaquita to extinction because the small porpoise is easily entangled and drowned in these dangerous nets.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act requires the US government to ban seafood imports from foreign fisheries that kill or injure marine mammals, including the vaquita, at a rate above US standards. The rate of vaquita killing by Mexico’s fisheries in the Gulf of California is above US standards, and its efforts to stop this bycatch do not meet US. guidelines.

Over the past 20 years, 95 percent of the vaquita population has been lost. In recent years, the vaquita’s decline has accelerated. Scientists predict that the vaquita will be extinct soon — possibly by 2021 — if Mexican fishing practices and law enforcement efforts remain unchanged.

Mexico has failed to permanently ban all gillnets in the vaquita’s habitat, despite repeated recommendations by scientists and evidence that the use of gillnets by any fishery — in or adjacent to the vaquita’s range — will undeniably lead to the species’ extinction.

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