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Appeals Court Upholds Mexican Seafood Ban To Protect The Endangered Vaquita Porpoise

A U.S. federal appeals court is upholding a ban on Mexican fish and shrimp caught with gillnets in the uppermost part of Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. The ban was implemented last July by the U.S. Court of International Trade to protect a small, endangered porpoise.

Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit rejected the U.S. government's appeal to stay the seafood ban.

That’s a win for environmentalists who hope to pressure the Mexican government to protect the endangered vaquita marina porpoise. There are only about 10 vaquitas left, and fishermen’s nets are a considered a threat to the porpoise’s survival.

“It is a desperate situation for the vaquita,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director and senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “We believe that we need to put all the pressure possible on the Mexican government to get them to take action, to get them out on the water making sure that these dangerous nets are not being deployed.”

The Center for Biological Diversity, along with the Animal Welfare Institute and the Natural Defense Council, brought a lawsuit against the U.S. government in 2018 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 bycatch 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.

Uhlemann said the ban is necessary to prevent the vaquita from becoming extinct, and it ensures that U.S consumers aren’t buying shrimp and fish that endanger the porpoise.

Local fishermen, however, say it’s only illegal nets used to catch the huge, endangered totoaba fish that trap and drown the vaquita.

“It won’t help the vaquita at all to put a ban in place,” said Lorenzo Garcia, president the largest fishermen’s federation in the town of San Felipe, Baja California.

Instead, the seafood ban only hurts legal fishermen rather than addressing illegal totoaba poaching, he said.

But Uhlemann said while it’s important to crack-down on totoaba poaching, that’s not enough. To save the few vaquitas that are left, she said, all gillnets have to be kept out of the water.

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