Complaint Says Dept. of Interior Must Do More to Protect Endangered Species

A complaint filed in the District of Columbia District Court by environmental advocacy organizations asks that the United States Department of the Interior confront Mexico for failing to halt fishing of endangered totoaba fish. The plaintiffs claim their inaction reduced the effectiveness of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) and is contributing to the extinction of vaquita, a species of porpoise.

Two non-profit advocacy organizations, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Animal Welfare Institute, filed the complaint on Thursday against Secretary David Bernhardt and the Department of the Interior.

The complaint claimed that likely only 10 vaquita remain on the planet a result of frequent entanglement in fishing gear, particularly the gillnet gear used to catch totoaba. Totoaba is a large endangered fish illegally captured in Mexico and sold on the black market. Both fish are protected under CITES.

“For years, Mexico has failed to enforce these bans on totoaba fishing and trade, and as a result, the vaquita population has plummeted. If Mexico does not take serious, immediate, and concerted action to increase enforcement, the vaquita may be extinct by next year,” the complaint said. They cite that, according to the Pelly Amendment, the Secretary of the Interior is authorized to prohibit importation of any products from a country to the United States if it finds the country is engaging in trade that impacts endangered or threatened species.

The defendants were asked to enforce this in a petition dated September 29, 2014. According to the complaint, the Department of the Interior never made a determination on the petition.

The complaint claimed the vaquita is the world’s smallest porpoise, at about five feet in length. The species is only found in Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California and are critically endangered. “Hope for the vaquita remains” the complaint says. “During the most recent surveys in fall of 2019, scientists observed six likely-distinct vaquita, including three mother-calf pairs.”

The plaintiffs asked that the Department of the Interior respond within 30 days and ask the court to rule that they unlawfully withheld their response to the 2014 petition.