Environmentalists are suing the U.S. government in an effort to protect the last surviving vaquita porpoises – also known as the 'panda of the sea,' for the dark rings encircling their eyes – from being poached for their bladders, considered a delicacy in China.
"The time has come to seize Mexican seafood," Sarah Uhlemann of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the plaintiff groups, told Novedades Acapulco. "If Mexico does not act and immediately remove these dangerous nets from the vaquita habitat, we will lose this porpoise forever."
The environmentalists are demanding the United States stop buying shrimp and shellfish from the Gulf of California, the last remaining natural habitat of the vaquita.
Court documents say that the vaquita, the smallest porpoise in the world, will be extinct by 2021 if current fishing levels continue in the Gulf of California. Like other mammals, vaquitas breathe air. When they are trapped in nets they cannot rise to the surface to breathe, so drown.
The United States is violating a provision which aims to ban the purchase of seafood obtained through fishing that wounds or kills marine mammals, according to the lawsuit filed in the New York-based Court of International Trade.
The plaintiffs are also pressuring Mexico to cooperate with the marine conservation efforts by acting more vigorously to prevent fishing with nets that choke the vaquita.
In February, Mexico also announced measures to save the vaquita. Uhlemann stated the group has been pushing Mexico for several decades now to prevent fisheries from using gillnets in the Upper Gulf of California.
Mexico has banned fishing with these nets in the area, Uhlemann said, but the government has not firmly complied with the law, and there are too many legal gaps which are taken advantage of by fisheries.
The vaquita was first discovered in 1958, but numbers have dwindled dramatically: in 1997, a study found about 600 of the rare mammals in the Gulf of California in Mexico, a number that by 2008 had dropped to 250.