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Lawsuit Seeks Trade Sanctions Against Mexico To Protect Vaquita Porpoise

Conservation groups are suing the U.S. government to force a decision on a 2014 legal petition seeking sanctions against Mexico for failing to stop illegal fishing and trade of an endangered fish called the totoaba and to protect the world’s most endangered marine mammal, the vaquita marina porpoise, that gets caught in totoaba gillnets and drowns.

The lawsuit filed Thursday by the Center For Biological Diversity and the Animal Welfare Institute, demands the United States formally certify that Mexico’s failure to end totoaba poaching violates an international wildlife treaty, and sanction the country by prohibiting all wildlife imports, including seafood.

“The Mexican government has just utterly failed to enforce it's obligation to end totoaba fishing that continues to entangle the vaquita," said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director and senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. "And we are truly facing extinction of a species if the Mexican government does not take action."

Uhlemann said conservation groups hope sanctions will force Mexico to crack down on totoaba poaching in time to save the vaquita. There are only an estimated 10 left.

Totoaba fishing is already illegal in Mexico, and trading in totoaba is banned under a treaty, known as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), because it is an endangered species. The problem, Uhlemann said, is a lack of enforcement.

“The lawlessness that’s being permitted right now can’t continue," she said. "The answer is to get serious about enforcement. And the Mexican government has made lots of promises, but ultimately has just failed to follow through."

Under pressure from conservationists, the United States has already implemented a ban on seafood caught with gillnets in the vaquita's habitat in the uppermost part of the Sea of Cortez. But these sanctions could go further, Uhlemann said.

"If the government decides to use the full power of this ban, it could ban all seafood regardless of where it's from in Mexico, as well as any other wildlife product," she said.

That means, fishermen in living near the vaquita's habitatwho are already struggling with fishing bans, the existing embargo and a lack of support from the Mexican government likely wouldn't be the most effected by these sanctions.

"Really, this is targeted at fishermen and other purveyors of wildlife in other parts of Mexico," Uhlemann said. "And hoping that those people will make the same plea to the Mexican government to stop the lawlessness, stop the illegal fishing in the (vaquita's habitat) that I know the fishermen there are asking their government to do."

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