Biden Calls for Enhanced Measures to Protect Endangered Vaquita and Totoaba; Only 15 Vaquita Remain in the Wild

Map showing the range of the totoaba and vaquita. Both species are included on CITES Appendix I and are threatened by illegal fishing to meet the demand for totoaba swim bladder in East Asia. The vaquita is captured as bycatch in gillnets used to illegally catch totoaba. — Image /Credit Melissa Gonzalez/USFWS

Staff report

WASHINGTON D.C. – July 17, 2023

President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has addressed the ongoing illegal trade of totoaba and its detrimental impact on the vaquita population in a letter to Congress.

The letter, dated May 18, 2023, highlights the certification made by the Secretary of the Interior under the Fisherman’s Protective Act of 1967, known as the Pelly Amendment, regarding the trade and depletion of these endangered species.

Totoaba, a protected species in Mexico since 1975, continues to be illegally fished, with unintended consequences for the vaquita, the world’s most endangered marine mammal. Both species are listed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), indicating their high risk of extinction.

The lucrative trade in totoaba swim bladders, particularly to meet demand in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), remains a driving force behind illegal harvesting. Trafficking routes often involve transporting the illegally harvested swim bladders from Mexico through the United States to the PRC. The vaquita population has plummeted as a result, with estimates suggesting that fewer than 15 individuals remain in the wild.

While efforts are being made to protect these species, including diplomatic dialogues between the United States and Mexico through the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement environment consultation process, additional measures are necessary. The CITES Secretariat recommended suspending trade with Mexico in CITES-listed species due to Mexico’s failure to comply with its obligations. Mexico subsequently submitted a CITES Compliance Action Plan in April 2023, leading to the withdrawal of the recommendation.

In partnership with the non-governmental organization Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, the Mexican government has taken steps to remove gillnets from a designated area in the Gulf of California, known as the Zero Tolerance Area (ZTA). According to Sea Shepherd, the ZTA is now “functionally gillnet free” as of June 26, 2023.

President Biden’s letter directs relevant executive departments and agencies to engage in a high-level dialogue with the Government of Mexico. The goal is to discuss measures to reduce illegal trafficking of totoaba and enhance vaquita conservation, including strengthening and implementing Mexico’s CITES compliance action plan. The United States also plans to establish a schedule of regular meetings to review Mexico’s plan implementation, focusing on monitoring, enforcement, and prevention of totoaba fishing and trafficking.

In addition, relevant U.S. agencies will coordinate efforts to assist and support Mexico in compliance, anti-trafficking, anti-corruption, and other measures as requested. The Secretary of the Interior, in coordination with other departments, will develop an assessment by July 2024 to evaluate Mexico’s enforcement actions and implementation of its CITES Compliance Action Plan.

President Biden has emphasized that trade measures on Mexican products will not be imposed at this time. However, continued monitoring of Mexico’s enforcement actions and progress is crucial. The Secretary of the Interior, in coordination with other departments, will provide a report to the President within one year to assess whether the actions taken have reduced illegal harvest and trafficking of totoaba and improved vaquita conservation. The report will serve as the basis for determining if additional steps, potentially including trade restrictions, are necessary.

President Biden expressed his belief that sustained efforts are vital to combat illegal trade in totoaba and protect the vaquita. These actions aim to curtail the illegal taking and commercial trade of totoaba while supporting effective conservation measures for the vaquita.

Members of the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program load bottlenose dolphins aboard a Coast Guard Air Station Sacramento C-27J Spartan aircraft at Naval Base North Island, in Coronado, California, Oct. 5, 2017. The dolphins and their trainers are deploying to assist Mexico’s Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources in searching for the few remaining vaquita porpoises in Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Rob Simpson/released)

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