Mexico sanctioned over failure to protect world’s most endangered marine mammal

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The international wildlife trade body sanctioned Mexico on 27 March. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) recommended the measure over Mexico’s failure to come up with an adequate plan to protect the vaquita porpoise. The porpoise is the world’s most endangered marine mammal.

The trade restrictions recommended by CITES should prevent Mexico from commercially trading in animal and plant products with the majority of countries around the globe.

Two at risk species

Illegal gillnets for catching totoaba have devastated the population of Vaquita porpoises. According to several conservation NGOs, only 10 of these porpoises remain. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed the vaquita as critically endangered since 1996.

Totoaba is a large fish whose swim bladder is prized in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for its alleged medicinal properties. Mongabay highlighted in a 2019 article on the smuggling of totoaba swim bladders into the US, however, that the bladders have “no proven health benefits”. The fish species is also vulnerable to extinction, according to the IUCN. Mexico doesn’t allow the fishing of wild totoaba, but it maintains a legal domestic trade in farmed individuals.

Hakai Magazine has highlighted that the fishing ban and farming of totoaba has done little to protect them in the wild. A lucrative illegal market in wild-caught fish persists, which is “financed by illicit Asian markets”, it reported. This, in turn, further threatens the handful of vaquitas who remain, as the illegal fishing nets can entangle and drown them.

CITES trade in totoaba and vaquita

CITES affords both totoaba and vaquita its highest level of protections from international trade by listing them on Appendix I. It lists species in three appendices, effectively according to their risk of extinction. Accordingly, countries cannot trade in totoaba or vaquita commercially. This is because Appendix I species cannot be subject to commercial trade.

That is not to say no international trade exists. Indeed, the CITES Wildlife TradeView database suggests that some trades have taken place in specimens of both species within the last decade. The extent of the trade is unclear, as the data provided by the countries involved does not match.

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For instance, Mexico reported to CITES that between 2016 and 2022, it exported 403 totoaba “specimens” to the US. These were allegedly mostly captive-bred specimens. During the same period, the US reported no imports of totoaba from Mexico, other than the confiscation or seizure 117 totoba swim bladders.

Trade data discrepancies like this are commonplace in the CITES system, and rarely face scrutiny. A recent report focusing on the trade in non-human primates argued that this is because the system lacks trade analytics to catch irregularities and what it called “trade risk flags”.

CITES didn’t approve international trade in Mexico’s farmed totoaba until 2022. It gave the controversial greenlight to this trade at a meeting that year, albeit with a temporary prohibition on sales of totoaba swim bladders. As the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) wrote at the time, there was significant opposition to the approval based on a number of concerns, including that:

a legal trade in captive-bred totoaba will provide cover for an illegal wild-sourced totoaba trade that harms vaquita.

CITES trade ban gives vaquitas a ‘fighting chance’

The sanctions on Mexico cover more than 3,000 animals and plants running into “millions of dollars in exports”. This is according to a joint statement issued by several environmental and animal welfare NGOs. It said:

These include lucrative products such as crocodile leather, mahogany, tarantulas, pet reptiles, cacti and other plants

Sarah Uhlemann, international programme director at the Center for Biological Diversity, commented:

While no one relishes economically painful sanctions, all other efforts to push Mexico to save the vaquita haven’t been enough

The strongest measures possible are needed to wake up the Mexican government and prompt it to finally save this tiny porpoise from extinction.

The EIA’s ocean campaigner Sarah Dolman also said:

this action by CITES gives the vaquita a fighting chance for survival – if Mexico keeps gillnets out of the areas designated to protect them and if it and other countries involved in the trade of totoaba act to halt it immediately.

In response, the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it was being subjected to “unequal treatment”, and that its conservation efforts have not fully been taken into account.

A Mexican delegation was in Geneva on 27 March to discuss efforts to protect the vaquita, which live only in the northern Gulf of California.

According to CITES, the sanctions will remain in effect until it deems that a revised protection plan is adequate.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse

Featured image via SEMARNAT / Flickr, cropped to 770×403, licensed under Public Domain Mark 1.0

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