The fight to save the vaquita is not over yet

The world’s most endangered marine mammal, the tiny vaquita, just won another minor victory in court. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit upheld a ban on Mexican seafood caught with gillnets in the vaquita’s range. The matter was then sent to the U.S. Court of International Trade (CIT) for further consideration.

Nicknamed the ‘panda of the sea’ due to its distinctive markings, it is estimated that fewer than 30 vaquita remain in the wild, and their numbers are decreasing rapidly. Illegal gillnets, coarse nylon fishing nets that are known to entangle and drown the small marine mammals, pose an immediate and serious threat. Though the vaquita is not directly hunted, winding up as “bycatch” in gillnets has decimated the population, which is now at risk of extinction.

The court said that circumstances had not changed enough to consider striking down the ban, enacted in July 2018 by Judge Gary S. Katzmann. However, it also stated that the CIT should review the federal government’s claims that allegations by environmental groups that the government did not act when it was required to protect the rare animal, were false.

The Trump administration filed two letters with the Federal Circuit that it says contains information showing that it had indeed properly observed the import ban and that the suit should therefore be tossed.

In October, the federal government placed a bid to lift the injunction pending the outcome of an appeal it had filed in August. The court rejected this bid, with Judge Katzmann stating that the government had already presented the same arguments in July, and he was no more convinced the second time around and that the environmental groups are likely to succeed on the merits.

Environmental groups sued the Trump administration in March, arguing the Marine Mammal Protection Act required it to ban imports of fish caught by methods that don't comply with American standards. The suit stated that though the administration was required to halt gillnet-harvested imports, it did not.

The Federal Circuit determined that it was “the CIT, and not this court, [that] should review in the first instance the factual circumstances laid out in the letters [filed by the government] to determine if they constitute a change in circumstances that alters the basis for the preliminary injunction.” The Court observed that “[w]e are not convinced by the Government that the factual circumstances have changed so much as to warrant our dismissal of the preliminary injunction before reconsideration by the CIT.”

The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation and the Carlos Slim Foundation have worked with the Mexican Government to establish ongoing efforts to achieve vaquita-specific conservation goals. A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed in which all parties agreed to protect valuable marine ecosystems in the Gulf of California, including by working to make the ban on the use of gillnets throughout the range of the vaquita permanent. 

The Federal Court’s upholding of the ban is one small victory toward the ultimate goal to bring the vaquita back from the imminent threat of extinction.

Last updated May 22, 2019

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