Conservationists Sue Trump Administration, Seeking Sanctions Against Mexico to Save Vaquita From Extinction

Conservation groups are suing the Trump administration to pressure the government to sanction Mexico for failing to stop illegal fishing activities that are killing vaquitas—the most endangered marine mammals on the planet.

The goal of the lawsuit, filed today by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Animal Welfare Institute against the U.S. Department of the Interior, is to force the administration into deciding on a 2014 legal petition.

The petition seeks sanctions against Mexico, including a ban on all fish and wildlife imports from the country, under a U.S. law known as the Pelly Amendment. However, the conservation groups say that the delay in making this decision has taken too long.

"The U.S. government's delay in responding to the petition is unconscionable and has allowed the vaquita to teeter on the edge of extinction," D.J. Schubert, wildlife biologist for Animal Welfare Institute, said in a statement.

"The Pelly Amendment provides a tool to compel Mexico to stop illegal fishing and trade in fish products to save the world's smallest and most endangered marine mammal. It's time for the Trump administration to exercise its authority and put this law to use."

Vaquitas, a type of porpoise endemic to the Gulf of California, are listed as "Critically Endangered" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List, with as few as 10 individuals remaining.

However, the conservation groups say that vaquitas become entangled and drown in Mexican fishing gear during illegal attempts to catch an endangered fish known as totoaba. Scientists predict that if these activities continue, the vaquita could soon be completely wiped out.

vaquita protest
Demonstrators with The Animal Welfare Institute hold a rally to save the vaquita, the world's smallest and most endangered porpoise, outside the Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C, on July 5, 2018. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

"Mexico is still sitting on its hands while vaquita after vaquita dies in fishing nets," Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement provided to Newsweek. "We've tried advocacy, we've tried diplomacy, but we're near the vaquita's end. Economic pressure is necessary to force Mexico to finally wake up and stop the vaquita's extinction."

In Mexico, it is illegal to fish for totoaba, and the trade of this animal is also prohibited under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) due to its endangered status. Nevertheless, fishermen continue to flout these bans.

The lawsuit requests that the U.S. government "certify" Mexico under the Pelly Amendment for its ongoing failure to halt illegal fishing of and international trade in the endangered totoaba fish.

"This take and trade violates and diminishes the effectiveness of CITES and is contributing to the imminent extinction of the vaquita, a critically endangered porpoise," the lawsuit states.

If Mexico is certified, the Trump administration will have the power to sanction the country by prohibiting wildlife imports.

"We want the administration to prohibit all wildlife imports, including seafood, from Mexico," Patrick Sullivan, a spokesperson for the Center for Biological Diversity, told Newsweek.

"We've had some success in this area already. Because of previous legal action, the U.S. banned shrimp and other seafood imports from the vaquita's habitat in Mexico under a different law; a ban under the Pelly Amendment would expand those sanctions," Sullivan said.