The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) – a voluntary agreement between nations that regulates the international trade of certain species of plants and animals – announced on March 27, 2023, that Mexico will be sanctioned after concluding that its plan to protect the vaquita marina is “not adequate”. The notification issued to its other 183 member countries communicated the recommendation to “suspend all commercial trade in specimens of CITES-listed species with Mexico.”
The Convention regulates the trade of 40,920 species – 6,610 animals and 34,310 plants – of which over 3,000 are either imported or exported by Mexico. This measure is considered the toughest one that can be imposed by CITES and is presently only applied to six other countries: Afghanistan, Djibouti, the small island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe, Libya, Somalia, and Liberia.
After the CITES’ 75th meeting of the Standing Committee and the 19th meeting of the Conference of the Parties, both held in Panama City in November 2022, Mexico was urged through Decision 18.293 (revised CoP19 version available here) to “take immediate and effective actions in response to the threats to totoaba and vaquita posed by illegal trade” through a series of specific actions detailed in the document.
As a result, on February 9, Mexico drafted and submitted to the Convention’s Secretariat a compliance action plan focusing on implementing the provisions of Decision 18.293. The Secretariat provided detailed inputs to the Mexican government on the abstract on February 16th, indicating the areas that had to be addressed for the plan to be approved. Mexico subsequently submitted its finalised proposal on February 27, within the agreed deadline; nonetheless, CITES proceeded with the sanction against the country because its project did not consider “key elements, such as clear timeframes for implementation and achievement of the different steps in the plan, with corresponding milestones.”
The same day that the trade ban recommendation was announced, Marcelo Ebrard, the Mexican Secretary of Foreign Affairs, sent a delegation to Geneva to negotiate the sanction and discuss improvements to the plan for protecting the vaquita marina. However, on March 25, Mexico’s Secretariat of the Environment and Natural Resources issued a press release, saying that “the Mexican government believes the country is being treated unfairly in that its efforts – publicly recognised by CITES – are not being taken into account.”
The efforts that Mexico referred to include the ban on gillnet fishing in the Gulf of California in 2017, the setup of radars and security to monitor the Zero Tolerance Area – an area of about 370 square kilometres where the vaquita’s refuge is located, and the placement of concrete blocks with steel-rod hooks to retrieve any gillnets left.
The Mexican Navy also partnered last year with Sea Shepherd, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), to implement Operation Milagro, a project to protect the vaquita marina by sharing information on illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing and reduce the affluence of fishing boats on the Californian Gulf. Despite these actions, NGOs and international organisations report that IUU fishing continues to thrive on Mexican coasts. CITES announced that the trade ban will remain in force until the Mexican government presents a new protection plan that is approved by the Convention, which could happen until November 2023, when the CITES’ Standing Committee and Parties meet again in Geneva to deliberate.
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The Vaquita Marina – The World’s Most Endangered Cetacean
The vaquita marina (Spanish for “little marine cow”) is a marine mammal found exclusively in Mexico’s Gulf of California, located between the peninsula of Baja California and the coasts of Sonora and Sinaloa. What makes this specimen unique from all others is its size. At a maximum length of 1.5 metres (4.9 feet), the vaquita is the smallest cetacean and shares many characteristics with whales, dolphins, and other porpoise species.
Despite its relatively recent discovery in the late 1950s, the IUU fishing industry has pushed the vaquita marina near extinction. The population decline of the species has been dramatic, turning it into the world’s most endangered marine mammal.
In 1997, there were almost 600 specimens in the Gulf of California but a 2017 census reported that the number had gone down to 30. That is a 95% decrease in the population in only 20 years. As of today, scientists from the International Union for Conservation of Nature inform that there are only 18 mature individuals, with eight adults and perhaps two calves left out in nature. The same organisation has classified the vaquita marina as “critically endangered” since 1996, after becoming “endangered” in 1990 and entering their Red List as “vulnerable” in 1986. Should the vaquita population continue to collapse, the following steps would be to declare it “extinct in the wild” and “extinct.”
Several factors have played a key role in the vaquita’s upheaval. One of them is the fact that it is a non-migratory mammal that has the most limited geographical range of any cetacean species, inhabiting a mere 4000 square kilometres. Additionally, the vaquita marina never goes deeper than 50 meters into the sea, making it relatively easier for illegal fishers to access the specimen. Another factor is the enormous Chinese demand for totoaba – a fish also found in the Gulf of California that is caught with gillnets, causing the vaquita to be trapped as bycatch – as its meat is considered an aphrodisiac delicacy that can be worth thousands of dollars per kilogram. The totoaba fish is currently considered a vulnerable species and its status could change to “endangered” if this trend continues.
More about the Vaquita here: 6 Interesting Facts About the Vaquita, The World’s Most Endangered Cetacean
Will the Trade Ban on Mexico Save the Vaquita Marina From Extinction?
For decades, the imposition of wildlife trade restrictions by CITES has been a controversial topic that often initiates discussions among conservation supporters and scientists. While there is no disagreement on the fact that wildlife trade is a major driver of biodiversity loss worldwide, they cannot agree on whether trade bans generate the same effect in the long run. While some find it a necessary instrument for environmental protection, others consider it a harmful and ineffective measure that increases the exploitation of endangered species and further exacerbates population decline.
The rationale for those against trade bans can be best described by Weber et al., who argue that “by removing legal trade, incentives to preserve wildlife may diminish; this can push trade “underground’ where it is unmonitored, uncontrolled, and ultimately the preservation of a species can be ineffective and lost.”
Many critics claim that countries do not analyse whether CITES trade bans will work in the way that they are intended or make the problem worse by enabling illegal trade. An example is the ban imposed in the 1970s on the black rhinoceros. Instead of protecting the animal and expanding its wild population, it caused a tenfold increase in the price of rhino horn over the next two years, promoting poaching and generating extinction in some areas.
The problem with the trade veto imposed on Mexico is that CITES is not using it as an instrument to directly tackle the decline of the vaquita marina population because the ban is not on the commercialisation of the vaquita itself or derivative products – the way the CITES agreement is meant to work through its three appendixes; instead, the Convention is blocking the trade of all other species as a pressure mechanism to get the Mexican government to work on a better preservation plan for the vaquita as soon as possible.
As the black rhinoceros case shows, this measure could backfire and further endanger other Mexican species subject to the ban if it stays on for a long time. The perception of the rarity of some of these plants and animals may rise along with their prices, creating a black market for their supply and demand. Moreover, as R.B. Martin noted in his reflection on the Convention, “CITES will be most effective when it works in concert with national states and not against them; that is, when it aids the Parties’ own law enforcement efforts to control illegal or excessive trade … This presupposes a high degree of mutual respect for the sovereign rights of nations and tolerance of a wide variation in approaches to conservation issues.”
While it is too early to analyse the effectiveness of the trade ban on Mexico, it seems to already have the effect that CITES was looking for, as the Mexican government promptly expressed its willingness to cooperate and improve its preservation plan to save the vaquita marina and lift the sanctions. The cost that Mexico will have to pay over the months that the veto remains in force is still unknown but expected to cost the country millions of dollars. In the meantime, the Mexican government can anticipate massive pressure from NGOs, companies, and investors from different industries that will be affected by this decision.
Despite what may seem like a small victory to get Mexican authorities more engaged in finding a solution, it is still necessary to be on the outlook for any undesired side effects that the trade ban may cause.
Mexico is a country known for its rich biodiversity, and many people in the formal and informal sectors depend on commercialising plants and animals in different forms. Relying too heavily on bans and other trade restrictions can harm entire communities if evidence does not clearly indicate that it is for the wellbeing of a particular species. This situation will likely increase the costs and reduce the markets for many Mexican fishers, butchers, farmers, horticultors, and herbalists, jeopardising their livelihoods and causing some to turn to illegal trade or smuggling of endangered species. Instead, sustainable trade should be promoted as it can help to meet people’s needs and safeguard the environment.
As for the vaquita marina, let’s not forget that it is an essential part of the natural food chain within its habitat, existing as both a predator and prey for sharks and killer whales. They also serve as a vital population control mechanism for several fish species, crustaceans, and cephalopods. Its preservation plans should focus on identifying and attacking the root causes of the problem instead of only dealing with the outer layers, such as simply removing gillnets. It is critical for the international community to rally and support NGOs, the Mexican government, and international organisations in their mission to save the vaquita marina. Even though there are very few vaquitas left, we still have time to take action, as scientists believe that the species can be saved through inbreeding, but IUU fishing must stop now for that to happen.
Featured image courtesy of UN Environmental Programme
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