Biden gives Mexico a year to better protect endangered marine animals

MEXICO CITY — U.S. President Joe Biden is urging Mexico to step up conservation efforts for the endangered vaquita porpoise and totoaba fish, threatening possible trade sanctions if no results are evident within a year.

In a letter to the US Congress sent on Monday, Biden said that at this time he was not ordering the Treasury Department to impose trade measures on Mexican products because the Mexican government was implementing protective measures.

But he said various U.S. agencies “will monitor Mexico’s enforcement actions and progress and provide me with a report no later than 1 year from the date of this notification on whether these actions have reduced illegal totoaba harvesting and trafficking and improved vaquita conservation.”

A vessel deployed to help rescue efforts for the endangered vaquita porpoise sails during a media presentation near San Felipe, Mexico (Guillermo Arias/AFP via Getty Images file)

A vessel deployed to help rescue efforts for the endangered vaquita porpoise sails during a media presentation near San Felipe, Mexico (Guillermo Arias/AFP via Getty Images file)

The report will then be used to assess whether further measures will be necessary, including trade restrictions. In 2021, the value of all seafood shipped from Mexico to the United States approached $600 million.

In February, US authorities warned that the Latin American country was violating the environmental chapter of the trade agreement between the United States, Mexico and Canada (T-MEC).

In May, the US Department of the Interior also expressed concern over totoaba trafficking and the species’ inadequate conservation.

In March, Mexico was sanctioned for several weeks by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) – a global treaty that regulates wildlife – because, despite presenting a plan to combat illegal fishing of totoaba and protect the vaquita porpoise, the action plan was deemed insufficient.

“For decades, Mexico failed to protect the vaquita, despite several written plans being presented. The United States missed this opportunity to put more pressure on the Mexican government,” said Alejandro Olivera, a representative from the Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona-based nonprofit. “We know that illegal networks are still in use to this day, so they continue to pose a risk to the vaquita,” he added.

According to recent research by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a union comprised of both government and civil organizations, only about eight vaquita specimens remain.

The vaquita, a species endemic to Mexico, is the smallest and most endangered type of porpoise in the world.

Biden also announced that he has directed various federal agencies to convene a high-level meeting with Mexican authorities to discuss measures to reduce illegal totoaba trafficking and ensure the conservation of the vaquita.

Responding to Biden’s letter, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador thanked Biden on Tuesday for postponing trade sanctions against Mexico.

Little success in the fight against illegal fishing

In April, an investigation by Noticias Telemundo and the Latin American Center for Investigative Journalism (CLIP) showed that the Mexican state had little success in combating the illegal totoaba trade. Between 2016 and 2022, only 16 people were convicted in connection with this crime, according to data from the federal prosecutor for environmental protection.

In China, the swim bladder of totoaba fish is considered a delicacy with medicinal properties – and has been priced at $60,000 per kilogram, according to a report by the Brookings Institution. This triggered a high demand for the fish, although its capture was banned in Mexico due to severe overfishing.

However, the exploitation of totoaba fish does not only affect this species: vaquitas are also victims of the nets used for totoaba fishing because they become entangled in them and die.

As recently as April 13, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials seized 242 pounds of totoaba swim bladders at the border port of Nogales, Arizona, with an estimated value of $2.7 million.

In September 2022, the Chinese government released the results of Qingfeng Action 2022, a multi-ministerial operation to stop the illegal wildlife trade.

According to Chinese authorities, they have recorded 12,000 cases of wildlife crimes, including 1,000 cases related to the smuggling of totoaba and other marine species.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security reported three incidents in which authorities seized Mexican totoaba bladders found in shipments to California; estimated values ​​for the totoaba were between $250,000 and $450,000.

According to data from Mexico’s Attorney General requested by Noticias Telemundo, only 743 pieces of totoaba were seized between January 2016 and October 31, 2022; 291 pieces were seized in Mexico City between 2018 and 2021.

In his letter, Biden urged Mexican officials to step up implementation of CITES regulations and said a timeline will be established to review progress in protecting the totoaba and vaquita porpoise.

Biden also instructed his government to support Mexico in the fight against the trafficking of these species and to collaborate in the training processes of the Mexican authorities, if they so request.

Esteban Moctezuma, Mexican Ambassador to the United States, said Twitter that the letter responds to pressure from non-governmental organizations and that his government will work with the United States to safeguard the livelihoods of these animals.

Biden’s message, the diplomat wrote, is a “recognition of Mexico’s conservation achievements and the drastic decline of illegal totoaba fishing.”

Although Biden acknowledged that the Mexican government has taken some steps, he said “it must do more” to protect both species or the totoaba population will continue to decline and the vaquita will soon become extinct.

“These actions,” Biden concluded in his letter, “hold the most promise to reduce the illegal totoaba trade and establish effective vaquita conservation.”

An earlier version of this story was first published in Noticias Telemundo.

This article originally appeared on

Leave a Comment