MEXICO CITY — United States President Joe Biden has urged Mexico to intensify conservation efforts for the endangered vaquita and totoaba fish, threatening possible trade sanctions if there are no apparent results within a year.

in a letter to the United States Congress sent Monday, Biden said he is not directing the Treasury Department to impose trade measures on Mexican products for now because the Mexican government is implementing protective measures.

But he claimed that 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 notice on whether these actions have reduced illegal harvesting and trafficking of totoaba and improved vaquita conservation.»

A boat deployed to aid efforts to save the endangered vaquita sails during a media presentation near San Felipe, Mexico.
A boat deployed to assist in efforts to save the endangered vaquita sails during a media presentation near San Felipe, Mexico, on January 24.Guillermo Arias/AFP via Getty Images file

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

In February, the 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).

By May, the US Department of the Interior had also raised concerns about totoaba trafficking and inadequate conservation of the species.

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 totoaba fishing and protect the vaquita, the action plan was deemed inadequate.

“For decades, Mexico has failed to protect the vaquita, although several written plans have been put forward. The United States has missed this opportunity to put more pressure on the Mexican government,” said Alejandro Olivera, a representative for the Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona-based nonprofit organization. “We know that the illegal nets are still used to this day, so they continue to pose a risk to the vaquita,” he added.

according to recent investigation By the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a union made up of government and civil organizations, only about eight specimens of the vaquita 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 had directed several federal agencies to convene a high-level meeting with Mexican authorities to discuss steps to reduce the illegal totoaba trade and ensure the conservation of the vaquita.

In response 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 has had little success in combating the illegal trade in totoaba. Between 2016 and 2022, only 16 people were convicted of this crime, according to data from the Federal Attorney for Environmental Protection.

In China, the swim bladder of the totoaba fish is considered a delicacy that has medicinal properties and is priced at $60,000 per kilogram. according to a report by the Brookings Institution. This has triggered a huge demand for the fish, although its capture has been banned in Mexico due to intense 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 get entangled in them and die.

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

In September 2022, the Chinese government released the results of the Qingfeng Action 2022 a multi-departmental operation aimed at stopping the illegal trade in wildlife.

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

The US Department of Homeland Security reported three incidents in which authorities seized totoaba bladders from Mexico found in shipments in California; estimated values ​​for totoaba ranged from $250,000 to $450,000.

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

In his letter, Biden urged the Mexican authorities to strengthen the implementation of CITES regulations and said that a calendar will be established to review progress in the protection of the totoaba and the vaquita.

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

Esteban Moctezuma, Mexico’s ambassador to the US, said the Twitter that the letter responds to pressure from non-governmental organizations and that his government will work with the US to preserve the livelihood of these animals.

Biden’s message, the diplomat wrote, is a «recognition of Mexico’s achievements in conservation and the drastic decrease in illegal totoaba fishing.»

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

«These actions», Biden concluded in his letter, «they hold the most promise to reduce the illegal totoaba trade and institute effective vaquita conservation.»

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