Conservationists Call on Mexico to Save the Vaquita

Photo by Lorenzo Rojas-BrachoWithout Immediate Action, Porpoise’s Extinction Predicted by 2018

Mexico City—On the day before Mexico’s National Day of Conservation, conservation groups are calling on the Mexican government to enact forceful protective measures to save the critically endangered vaquita, a tiny porpoise species that only inhabits the upper Gulf of California.

With fewer than 100 vaquita left and the porpoise’s extinction predicted by 2018, urgent action—including the prohibition of gillnetting throughout its full range—is essential to save this species. In response to the crisis, the Mexican government is expected to announce its plans for vaquita conservation measures tomorrow.

“Mexico will garner worldwide commendation if it dismisses the rhetoric of those opposed to protecting the vaquita and instead announces comprehensive and aggressive actions to save the species,” said Susan Millward, executive director at the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI). “Committing itself to preventing the vaquita’s extinction on its National Day of Conservation would send a strong signal to all that the current ambivalence toward the vaquita and failure to enforce existing laws is no longer acceptable.”

In August 2014, an international panel of experts known as the Comité Internacional para la Recuperación de la Vaquita (CIRVA) released a report on the vaquita’s dire conservation status. The report found that only 97 vaquita, including fewer than 25 reproductively mature females, remain and that the population is declining by 18.5 percent annually ‒ with extinction possible by 2018 if vaquita bycatch is not eliminated. The committee’s report recommended a prohibition on all gillnetting in the vaquita’s habitat and enhanced enforcement efforts to stop illegal gillnetting and trade of the endangered totoaba, a fish whose swim bladder is highly valued in Chinese cuisine.

”Mexico must ban gillnetting in the Upper Gulf of California to save the vaquita from extinction,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity (Center). “Announcing conservation measures is an essential first step but it’s not enough. On-the-water enforcement is critical—and Mexico’s history on vaquita enforcement is less than stellar.”

Conservationists from around the world have repeatedly encouraged Mexican authorities to fully comply with the expert committee’s recommendations and warned of economic repercussions if they do not. In July 2014, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) filed a lawsuit to enforce the “foreign bycatch” provisions of the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, which could result in a ban on all shrimp imports from Mexico that are not vaquita-safe. In addition, the Center petitioned the Obama administration to impose trade sanctions on Mexico for failing to enforce the international ban on trade in totoaba under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

“It’s horrible when a species disappears forever from the planet due to human causes; and it would be particularly tragic in the case of the vaquita because we know exactly what is necessary to help them survive: keeping gillnets out of vaquita habitat,” said Zak Smith, an attorney with NRDC’s Marine Mammal Protection Project. “With an aggressive plan, Mexico does not have to join the small group of nations responsible for a marine mammal species’ extinction.”

China and the United States also share responsibility for the perilous state of the vaquita based on their role in the illegal totoaba trade. The United States has been urged by conservation organizations to work with China to stop the illegal import from Mexico of totoaba products for sale in the United States and export to China.

“The resurgence of illegal totoaba fishing for the Chinese market has increased the speed at which the vaquita hurtles towards extinction,” said Clare Perry, head of Oceans Campaigns at Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). “This species could be pushed to the point of no return in a matter of months unless Mexico significantly steps up both at-sea and shore-based enforcement efforts and works together with the United States and China to combat the organized criminal networks that perpetuate the trade.”

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Media Contacts:
DJ Schubert: Animal Welfare Institute, 609-601-2875; dj@awionline.org
Sarah Uhlemann: Center for Biological Diversity, 206-327-2344; suhlemann@biologicaldiversity.org
Clare Perry: Environmental Investigation Agency, +34 664-348-821; clareperry@eia-international.org
Kimiko Martinez: National Resources Defense Council, 310-434-2344; kmartinez@nrdc.org

About the Animal Welfare Institute
The Animal Welfare Institute is a non-profit charitable organization founded in 1951 and dedicated to reducing animal suffering caused by people. AWI engages policymakers, scientists, industry, and the public to achieve better treatment of animals everywhere-- in the laboratory, on the farm, in commerce, at home, and in the wild. For more information, visit www.awionline.org.

About the Center for Biological Diversity
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 800,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places. For more information, visit www.biologicaldiversity.org.

About the Environmental Investigation Agency
The Environmental Investigation Agency is a London UK- and Washington DC -based non-governmental organization that investigates and campaigns against a wide range of environmental crimes, including illegal wildlife trade, illegal logging, hazardous waste, and trade in climate and ozone-altering chemicals. For more information, visit www.eia-international.org, www.eia-global.org, and on Twitter at @EIAinvestigator.

About the National Resources Defense Council
The Natural Resources Defense Council is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 1.4 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. For more information, visit www.nrdc.org and on Twitter at @NRDC.