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Environmental Groups Call For Greater International Pressure On Mexico To Protect Vaquita Marina

Environmental groups are urging the U.S. government and international organizations to use sanctions to pressure Mexico to protect a critically endangered porpoise that lives in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez.

With as few as 10 vaquita marina left, conservation groups are calling for bans on some Mexican seafood and wildlife exports to pressure the country to do more to protect the small porpoise.

They say the Mexican government has failed to stop the use of gillnets within the vaquita’s habitat in the Upper Gulf of California. The nets, which can trap and drown the little vaquita, are considered the leading threat to the species.

Over the past year, Mexico has  implemented new regulations meant to protect the vaquita marina But conservationists say those changes are  not being enforced.

"We've documented lack of enforcement from Mexican authorities and how poaching is still going on, and the many other failures of the Mexican government to protect the vaquita," said Alejandro Olivera, a senior scientist and Mexico representative with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups seeking sanctions. "I think we are going backwards."

Earlier this year, Mexican officials with an inter-agency group tasked with protecting the porpoise announced that it is considering  shrinking a protected area for the vaquita marina, opening up those areas for gillnet fishing.

The group also said it is considering removing a large fish called the  totoaba from its endangered species list. Conservationists say while populations of the fish do appear to have increased, it would be inappropriate to reduce protections until studies have been carried out and poaching is under control. Totoaba are valuable on the black market in Asia, and illegal use of gillnets to catch totoaba endangers the vaquita.

The  U.S. has already embargoed imports of shrimp and other seafood from the region, which has caused economic hardship for local fishermen. The conservation groups are  calling on the United States to continue its ban on Mexican seafood, including highly lucrative trawl-caught shrimp, imported from the vaquita’s habitat in the Upper Gulf of California.

They've also  asked the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to suspend trade of hundreds of Mexican wildlife and plant species and products worth hundreds of millions of dollars. And a  separate letter urges the UNESCO World Heritage Committee to maintain the vaquita’s habitat, part of a designated World Heritage site, as “in danger,” and require Mexico to submit a detailed management plan.

“Only the strongest international pressure will force Mexico to get lethal fishing nets out of the water before these little porpoises disappear forever,” Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, was quoted as saying in a news release. “For years, scientists, conservationists and local fishermen have asked the Mexican government to stop illegal fishing and finally save the vaquita. When the U.S. government finally embargoed seafood from the vaquita’s habitat, Mexico responded by still hasn’t stepped up enforcement. Time for real action is running out.”

The conservation groups believe that without urgent action, the vaquita could become extinct in a matter of years.

Last week, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival commission also sent a letter to Mexican authorities expressing concern over the country's failure to rid the vaquita's habitat of gillnets and urging them to do more crack down on illegal totoaba fishing that puts the last remaining vaquita at risk.

The letter highlighted the upcoming high season for totoaba in the Upper Gulf of California in April and May, though Olivera said that in recent years, poaching has continued year-round.

The IUCN also disputed arguments by the Mexican government claiming that a decline in the amount of fresh water flowing from the U.S. through the Colorado River into the Sea of Cortez has increased salinity in the Upper Gulf, causing harm to the vaquita.

"[T]he scientific community widely accepts that unsustainable mortality in gillnets (set for shrimp, totoaba and other finfish) is the cause of the vaquita’s rapid decline," the letter reads. "There is no reason to seek an alternative explanation for the vaquita’s unprecedented decline.”

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