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The vaquita, a new open front between Mexico and the US

Biden said that he will not impose trade sanctions on Mexico despite the slow progress in conservation efforts, although he has left the door open to action within the framework of the USMCA free trade agreement

Carlos S. Maldonado
Mexico US
A fishing boat operating inside the exclusion zone in the Gulf of California in 2016.SEMAR

The fight to stop the vaquita from going extinct has created a new front in already tense trade relations between Mexico and the United States. Mexican authorities reacted with relief after U.S. President Joe Biden reported in a letter sent to Congress on Monday that he has decided not to impose sanctions on Mexico due to the little progress made in the conservation of the vaquita porpoise, a cetacean that is at high risk of extinction due to illegal fishing and the incursion of boats into its habitat. Biden, however, threatened the Mexican government with sanctions within the framework of the USMCA free trade agreement between Canada, Mexico and the U.S. (which replaced NAFTA) if it does not show a real commitment to prevent the extinction of this species.

Mexico already has two open disputes within USMCA, one over corn and another over the energy sector. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador thanked his counterpart on Tuesday during his morning press conference. “They are taking care of themselves and there is evidence that [the vaquita] is preserved, even that they have been reproducing in recent times. So, we thank President Biden for this.”

The government of Mexico has been mobilizing its diplomacy to avoid sanctions. Esteban Moctezuma, Mexican ambassador to the United States, came out in defense of his country and highlighted the efforts that the executive is making to preserve the cetacean as well as the totoaba, a fish whose survival is also threatened by overfishing. Environmental organizations had asked Washington for sanctions against Mexico, whose authorities they accuse of not taking the necessary measures to stop the illegal fishing of totoabas and the presence of boats in the Baja California habitat shared by the fish and vaquitas. “President Biden supported Mexico in a very important way,” Moctezuma said.

vaquita marina
A vaquita porpoise.Paula Olson (AP)

Mexican environmental authorities said they have managed to reduce the presence of illegal fishermen in the area thanks to patrol work by the Navy, with “the apparent decrease of more than 90% in pangas [small boats] and gillnets,” according to a report by experts from Mexico, the United States and Canada who embarked on the Vaquita 2023 Observation Cruise, which toured the so-called Zero Tolerance Zone (ZTC), located in the Alto Golfo de California Biosphere Reserve, between May 10 and 27. The scientists reported the sighting of at least 13 vaquita specimens, whose largest population has been located in the Gulf of California since 2021. At that time, only eight vaquitas were known to exist. Ambassador Moctezuma highlighted this finding and said that Mexico’s actions to preserve these species are “effective.”

The preservation of both the totoaba and the vaquita is an open front in relations between the two countries, since their preservation is included within the environmental requirements of the USMCA trade agreement between the North American nations. U.S. environmental authorities have warned about the “inadequate conservation” in Mexico of various endangered species. Biden has warned that he will wait for a new report in the summer of 2024 to decide whether to take action against Mexico. “The report will be used as a basis for assessing whether additional measures are necessary, including possible trade restrictions,” he warned.

Environmental groups feel Mexico is guilty of important failures in the effort to protect these species. Experts consider that 98.6% of the vaquita population has been lost. The main threat is illegal fishing nets in the Gulf of California area, where boats enter to catch fish species that have a high market value, such as the totoaba. This fish is in great demand in China, where a kilo can fetch up to $45,000. Vaquitas also suffer from the constant presence of boats in the area, against which they can collide and perish.

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