As of this Monday, Mexico will not be able to sell orchids or cacti, nor will it be able to export crocodile skin. The International Convention on Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has ordered the suspension of “all trade” with the country because Mexico is not doing “the right thing” to stop illegal fishing of totoaba and thus protect the vaquita. . The sanction affects 3,148 species of plants and animals. This measure, the most radical of the organization, only applies to six other countries in the world: Somalia, Djibouti, Liberia, Sao Tome and Principe, Afghanistan and Libya. The Mexican Foreign Ministry has sent a delegation to Geneva on Monday to try to negotiate the sanctions. Meanwhile, environmental organizations warn of the harsh consequences of this ban.
The vaquita is the most endangered marine mammal in the world, there are only eight specimens left. The species lives in the Sea of Cortez, located between the Baja California peninsula and the coasts of Sonora and Sinaloa. Its extinction is directly related to another animal: the totoaba, the largest fish in the Gulf of California. The totoaba’s swim bladder has become a luxury product in China, where it is believed to have aphrodisiac powers. It sells for up to $60,000. This lucrative business has attracted hundreds of illegal fishermen and also organized crime.
The two species share territory, which means that all this illegal fishing takes place in the protected areas where the vaquita tries to survive. The mammal often gets caught in the gillnets that fishermen use to catch totoaba. Entangled there, she drowns. The collapse is alarming: in 1997 there were almost 600 vaquitas, in 2016 there were 60, only a year later they fell by half, and since 2019 there are less than 10 copies. Faced with an announced extinction, international organizations have demanded more efforts from Mexico to protect it. For now, no results. The involvement of criminal groups has even forced environmental defenders to go into exile from the country due to the risk involved in trying to protect this species.
In this context, CITES, which regulates the trade and defense of protected species in 184 countries, rejected the plan presented by Mexico in February to combat the illicit trafficking of totoaba. The international organization considered that it was not adequate to address the problem, mainly due to “the absence of key elements, such as clear deadlines for implementation and the achievement of the different steps of the plan, with their corresponding milestones.” As a consequence, in a resolution sent this Monday, the CITES secretariat recommends “suspend all trade in specimens” with Mexico.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has assumed the onslaught and is going to send a delegation today to work on the aspects to be improved in the action plan. Even so, the Government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador has issued a statement in which it “considers an unequal treatment” towards the country “by not taking into account the exhaustive effort and the multiple actions that have been carried out.” Mexico banned gillnetting in the Sea of Cortez in 2017, has also posted navy surveillance and sunk concrete vessels with hooks so gillnets won’t work. In addition, according to official data, they confiscated more than 2,300 totoaba crops, imposed fines of 337 million pesos (17 million dollars) and recovered 384 illegal nets between September 2019 and September 2021.
However, illegal fishing continues on a massive scale. This same weekend, anticipating the arrival of the sanctions, around 200 boats, without registration or permits, were launching nets to capture totoaba. Illegal activities take place within the refuge area of the vaquita, which occupies some 13,000 square kilometers. Inside there is the so-called Zone of Zero Tolerance —about 230 square kilometers—, where the Secretary of the Navy placed the wall of concrete blocks with hooks and surveillance is more exhaustive.
In its plan sent to CITES, the Government of Mexico promised to use radars, “redouble surveillance” and “plant” more concrete blocks, but for the international organization more measures were needed to prevent illegal fishermen from entering in general throughout the refuge area. Foreign Affairs also aimed to control the ports and airports so that the totoaba crop could not be removed from the country: “It is important to point out that in the problem of illegal totoaba trafficking there is an international co-responsibility of transit and destination countries. Likewise, it is necessary to comply with the offer of CITES to finance studies in attention to the Upper Gulf of California”.
The sanction will remain in force until the plan of the Mexican Government seems appropriate to the international organization. The economic consequences can be millions. “CITES sanctions represent an embargo of catastrophic proportions, never seen before both for trade and for our international image,” argues Ernesto Zazueta, president of the Association of Zoos, Hatcheries and Aquariums of Mexico.
The organization gives an example to the candelilla, a plant that grows in the deserts of Coahuila and that only exists in Mexico, highly demanded in the cosmetic, ballistics, and aeronautical industries. “Many communities in the north in extreme poverty depend on it,” says the association. In addition, it also gives an example of the impact for the Guanajuato fur industry or for the musical instruments industry, since there is “irreplaceable” wood that is within the species regulated by CITES. “As if that were not enough, the system of Management Units for the Conservation of Wildlife in Mexico has 38.8 million hectares under its sustainable management, which with this suspension of trade are at serious risk of collapsing, since the resources that they generated for their subsistence will disappear”, concludes Zazueta.
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