Lawsuit Demands Ban on Mexican Shrimp, Other Seafood to Save Vanishing Porpoise

Photo by Thomas Jefferson

Suit Seeks Enforcement of Federal Law to Prevent Extinction of Vaquita

New YorkConservation groups sued the Trump administration today for failing to follow federal law and ban shrimp and other seafood imported from Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California and harvested with gillnets that drown the vaquita porpoise.

Today’s lawsuit, filed in the US Court of International Trade in New York City, notes that fewer than 30 vaquita now remain. Vaquita reside in only one place on the planet—the Upper Gulf of California, a narrow body of water between Baja and the Mexican mainland. Fishing with gillnets is driving the vaquita to extinction because the small porpoise is easily entangled and drowned in these dangerous nets. Over the past 20 years, 95 percent of the population has been lost. In the last few years, the vaquita’s decline has accelerated; about 50 percent of the population is now killed in gillnets each year. Scientists predict that the vaquita will be extinct soon, possibly even by next year, if Mexican fishing practices remain unchanged.

The suit, filed by the Animal Welfare Institute, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Natural Resources Defense Council asks for court intervention and an immediate ban. A U.S. ban on Mexican shrimp and seafood imports from the upper Gulf of California would put direct pressure on the country to fully ban gillnets in the vaquita’s home waters.

“The United States is a leading importer of fish products caught in the upper Gulf of California,” said Susan Millward, director of the Animal Welfare Institute’s marine animal program. “Banning imports of gillnet-caught seafood from vaquita habitat would remove a key incentive for the ongoing use of this destructive fishing gear in the region. The US seafood market should not be contributing to the extinction of a species.”

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.

“This is the dolphin-tuna fish story all over again, only the situation is even more dire. If we don’t put immediate pressure on Mexico to manage its Baja fisheries in a sustainable way, we will lose this porpoise forever,” said Giulia Good Stefani, staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “This lawsuit might be the vaquita’s last chance.”

“Despite decades of warnings, Mexico has stood by and watched fishing nets pull this little porpoise down toward extinction,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The time has come to embargo Mexican seafood. If Mexico doesn’t act and immediately get dangerous gillnets out of the vaquita’s habitat, we will lose this porpoise forever.”

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 unprecedented decline of vaquita—50 percent of the population each year—exceeds US standards.

In December, the organizations behind this lawsuit filed a related lawsuit against the Trump administration, seeking an immediate response to an emergency petition filed the previous May. The formal legal petition requested that the US government ban the import of seafood from Mexico that was caught in the vaquita’s habitat using deadly gillnets. To date, there has been no action on this petition.

Click here to view the filed complaint.

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Media Contact

Amey Owen, (202) 446-2128, amey@awionline.org

About the Animal Welfare Institute
The Animal Welfare Institute (www.awionline.org) is a nonprofit 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 1.6 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

About the Natural Resources Defense Council
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 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. Visit us at www.nrdc.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.