U.S. Court Upholds Seafood Import Ban to Protect Vaquita


By The Maritime Executive 2018-10-22 22:13:07

The U.S. Court of International Trade has denied the Trump administration’s request to lift a ban on certain seafood imports caught with gillnets that kill the critically endangered vaquita porpoise. In July, the court ordered the government to ban such imports from Mexico’s Gulf of California and this ruling upholds the earlier decision.  

As few as 15 vaquita remain, and almost half the population drowns in fishing gillnets each year. Absent immediate additional protection, the tiny porpoise could be extinct by 2021.

The import ban covers all fish and fish products from Mexican commercial fisheries that use gillnets within the vaquita’s range in the Upper Gulf of California. This includes shrimp, corvina (drum fish), sierra (Spanish mackerel) and chano (bigeye croaker) from the area. Gillnets are fishing nets that hang in the water, indiscriminately catching both target fish and other marine creatures, including vaquita. It is estimated that in 2017 alone more than 1,400 tons of the now-banned gillnet-caught fish and shrimp, valued at roughly $16 million, crossed the border to be consumed in the U.S.

“We applaud the court for its clear and unequivocal rejection of the government’s attempts to reverse this important decision,” said DJ Schubert, wildlife biologist for the Animal Welfare Institute. “The court made clear that the government’s arguments were not sufficient to upend the Marine Mammal Protection Act mandate to protect marine mammals.”

The U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act requires the U.S. government to ban seafood imports from foreign fisheries that kill marine mammals, including the vaquita, at a rate that would violate U.S. standards for domestic fishers. The vaquita’s mortality rate of almost half the population each year far exceeds the fisheries’ bycatch rates for marine mammals permitted in this country.

“Americans don’t want to be complicit in causing the extinction of the vaquita porpoise by purchasing fish caught in gillnets,” said Schubert. “The court held that the interests of the vaquita are more important than the government’s spurious claims that a ban on gillnet-caught seafood will harm relations between the U.S. and Mexico.”

Mexico has failed to permanently ban all gillnets in the vaquita’s habitat, despite repeated recommendations by scientists and evidence that the use of gillnets by any fishery, in or adjacent to the vaquita’s range, will undeniably lead to the species’ extinction.