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Appeals Court Upholds Seafood Ban Meant To Protect Endangered Porpoise

Earth League
handout | agency
A dead vaquita shows signs of having been caught in a gillnet.

A U.S. federal appeals court is upholding a ban on Mexican seafood caught with gillnets in areas where they threaten an endangered porpoise.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ordered the U.S. government to honor a 4-month-old ban on Mexican fish and shrimp caught in the uppermost part of Mexico’s Sea of Cortez.

The gillnets used to catch the fish also trap and kill the world’s most endangered marine mammal, the vaquita marina.

“We are really about to lose the vaquita. There are only 15 left,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director and senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “If it continues to decline at current rates this species will be extinct, zero vaquitas left, by 2021. This is absolutely an emergency situation for the vaquita.”

The Center for Biological Diversity brought a lawsuit against the U.S. government earlier this year asking authorities to uphold the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Uhlemann said. It requires the U.S. only to import seafood caught using the same standards for marine mammal by-catch that U.S. fishermen are subject to.

A lower court made a preliminary injunction in July imposing a temporary ban until the case can be brought to court. The U.S. government appealed the decision, but the appeals court declined to stay the ban.

“This is really the last tool in the toolbox,” said Uhlemann.

She says for years there have been efforts to remove gillnets dangerous to the vaquita from the area where the porpoise lives, but there is a lack of enforcement. She says the seafood ban could pressure the Mexican government to work harder to protect the vaquita.

Opponents of the measure say banning seafood imports only hurts legal fishermen and won’t address the real problem — illegal poaching.

Many argue that the only gillnets that are actually known to kill vaquitas are the ones used to hunt an endangered fish called the totoaba. Hunting totoaba is already illegal. But poachers continue to fish in the upper Sea of Cortez.

Kendal Blust was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2018 to 2023.