USMCA body recommends investigation into Mexico’s failure to protect vaquita marina

By Kendal Blust
Published: Wednesday, April 13, 2022 - 4:30pm

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vaquita mural
Kendal Blust/KJZZ
A mural of a vaquita mother and calf near the boardwalk in San Felipe, Baja California.

An environmental commission of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement is recommending a full investigation into allegations that Mexico has failed to protect a critically endangered porpoise in the Upper Gulf of California.

The Secretariat of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, an environmental dispute body established under the USMCA, says there are unresolved questions regarding Mexico’s compliance with environmental laws and cites the urgent need to protect the few remaining vaquita marina porpoises.

The recommendation for what's known as a factual report comes after Mexico was forced to respond to allegations that it has failed to protect the vaquita from illegal fishing nets used to catch shrimp and a large endangered fish called the totoaba, which is trafficked to China for its swim bladder. Those nets can trap and drown the vaquita and are considered the leading threat to its survival.

Scientists estimate there are only about eight vaquita left. The little porpoises, known for cute black markings around their eyes and mouths, only live in the uppermost part of the Gulf of California.

"We really hope that this process will shine a spotlight on the vaquita, on the Mexican government’s failures to take care of illegal fishing in the species habitat," said Sarah Uhlemann. "And not just for the vaquita, but for legitimate, legal fisherman down there who are really begging the Mexican government to get the situation under control.

Uhlemann is a senior attorney and international program director with the Center for Biological Diversity Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups that petitioned the USMCA to look into the issue. She said conservation groups hope international pressure will force Mexico to take stronger action to prevent the vaquita’s imminent extinction.

In a separate action, the United States has also filed a complaint with the USMCA over threats to the vaquita marina. That complaint calls for consultations with Mexican officials, but could ultimately lead to sanctions if the countries do not reach an agreement.

"The Mexican government is telling the world that their enforcement is solid, that it's great, and there is so much evidence that contradicts that," Uhlemann said. "We really hope this process gives a very neutral finding and really elucidates the facts and shows the enforcement problems that are causing the vaquita's extinction."

The environmental commission has until July 5 to vote on whether it will carry out a full review.

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