WASHINGTON, May 19, 2017 – Conservation groups petitioned the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service today to ban imports of seafood caught with gillnets in Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California, in order to save the critically endangered vaquita porpoise.
The vaquita population has declined by 90 percent over the last five years, with fewer than 30 of the small porpoises left on the planet. Entanglement in gillnets is the sole threat to the species’ survival, with scientists predicting that the vaquita will be extinct in two years if fishing practices remain unchanged.
“We can’t leave any tool unused that will help get the vaquita’s killer — gillnets — out of their habitat,” said Zak Smith, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Marine Mammal Protection Project. “The fishing industry is driving the vaquita’s extinction — and pressure on that group to fix their practices may be the most important way to save the porpoises. The United States must immediately ban the import of any seafood from Mexico that is contributing to the vaquita’s extinction.”
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.
“It’s horrific to watch the vaquita vanish from the Earth in real time,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Only strong actions like trade sanctions will force the Mexican government to finally step up and save these amazing little animals.”
The U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act requires the U.S. government to ban seafood imports from fisheries that kill marine mammals, like the vaquita, in excess of U.S. standards for marine mammal bycatch (the accidental entanglement and deaths of marine mammals in fishing gear). If U.S. standards were applied to Mexican fishermen operating in and near the vaquita’s habitat, fishermen would be prohibited from contributing to the bycatch of any vaquita because it is gravely endangered and losing its population at a rate of 50 percent per year.
“We can’t continue to wait for Mexico to find the political will and courage to save the vaquita in the wild as the species declines toward extinction,” said DJ Schubert, wildlife biologist with the Animal Welfare Institute. “It’s time for the U.S. to step up and use its laws to compel the Mexican government to save the species or to suffer the consequences of a ban on certain seafood exports.”
In 2016, following a legal petition by conservation groups, the Service adopted new rules to enforce the Marine Mammal Protection Act’s import provision. Those rules will be fully applicable worldwide by 2022. Today’s petition seeks emergency application of the rules to save the vaquita, which may be extinct by 2019 without immediate action.