No small problem

Wildlife groups use Mexican shrimp imports to highlight dramatic decline of porpoise species

By: Eric Kulisch
Photo: Aria Pearlilla / Shutterstock
   More than 50 environmental and animal rights organizations last week called on consumers to boycott Mexican shrimp sold in the United States by wholesalers and retailers such as Trader Joe’s in a last-ditch effort to save from extinction a small porpoise that uniquely exists in the upper corner of Mexico’s Gulf of California.
   Fewer than 30 vaquitas remain in the wild, according to researchers, down from about 700 in 1990. Wildlife experts say the demise of the mini porpoises is primarily a result of illegal use of gillnets used by poachers to catch an endangered fish called the totoaba, whose swim bladders are considered in China to be a delicacy with medicinal powers.
   The coalition said the boycott is designed to put financial pressure on the Mexican government to permanently ban all gillnets in vaquita habitat, increase enforcement and remove illegal nets from the water. It claims the shrimp industry has played a role in the vaquita’s decline over several decades. However, the shrimp industry appears to be an easier pressure point since there is no demand in the United States for totoaba.
   The website lists 33 companies that import, process and sell Mexican shrimp in the United States and Canada, including Fisherman’s Pride, Slade Gorton, King’s Seafood, Certi-Fresh Foods and Seattle Fish Co. The campaign, which is focused on the U.S. market, said it has asked the companies to stop purchasing Mexican shrimp.
   “The lives of vaquita are in the hands of people who've known for years that their actions are driving this species to extinction,” Zak Smith, a senior attorney with the National Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. “Now it's time for those complicit in the vaquita’s demise —the Mexican government, shrimp fisheries and U.S. seafood importers — to take bold action that ensures gillnets are pulled from the vaquita's waters. It’s the only path for saving this precious species. If they don’t, the vaquita’s extinction is on them.”
   In a separate blog post, he said U.S. shrimp importers talk about their commitment to sustainability, but continue to profit from Mexican shrimp without taking steps to help the vaquita.
   The campaign says the Mexican government has not followed through with promises of stronger enforcement of a gillnet ban and a ban on fishing in a special vaquita refuge. Other efforts to retrieve and remove nets, develop alternative fishing gear, train fishermen for alternative jobs and legal action, have not prevented the decline of the vaquita population. The vaquita population is declining at a rate of 50 percent a year, up from 4.5 percent a year in 2010, the non-governmental organizations say. During the past four months, nearly 110 illegal fishing nets were retrieved from a small area of the upper Gulf of California, 16 of which were shrimp nets.
   Commercial fishing for totoaba was prohibited in 1975 due to dwindling numbers.

The United States is the largest overseas market for Mexican shrimp. Last year, U.S. companies imported $274 million worth of shrimp from Mexico.

   The United States is the largest overseas market for Mexican shrimp. Last year, U.S. companies imported $274 million worth of shrimp from Mexico. Not all Mexican shrimp imports come from the Gulf of California, but the campaign said that the boycott can only have its intended effect if all shrimp are covered.
   The National Fisheries Institute, which represents the fish and seafood industry, criticized the shrimp boycott as misguided since the primary threat to the vaquita is from illegal fishing of totoaba.
   “This strategy seeks to disadvantage some of the most committed supporters of legal, sustainable shrimp harvesting,” NFI President John Connelly said in a statement. “Are some cars on the highway speeding? Yes. But as a means of increasing compliance with posted speed limits is anyone suggesting all cars be banned? No. If illegal fishing is negatively impacting efforts to protect vaquita then support for increased enforcement is what’s needed, not a boycott on those already doing the right thing.”
   The U.S. shrimp industry is already doing what it can to protect the vaquita, the NFI’s leader insisted.
   “We support specific, concentrated efforts to mitigate the impact of commercial fishing on the endangered vaquita,” Connelly said. “Efforts to ensure targeted exclusion of gill nets in legally protected areas are the types of responsible means of addressing this issue we continue to support.”
   The trade association added that all Mexican shrimp-harvesting vessels are required to be outfitted with real-time satellite monitoring systems to prevent entry into protected areas and that “we support and encourage robust enforcement of these restrictions by Mexican authorities.” The fact that some shrimp boats have been apprehended by authorities demonstrates that enforcement efforts with respect to the shrimp fleet are working, the statement said.
   In a March 3 letter to the NRDC and two other coalition partners, Connelly said that member companies also encourage the government of China to study how to stop the import of totoaba parts, have diversified their supply to include farmed Mexican shrimp, and work with suppliers in Mexico to adjust areas where shrimp are harvested.
   The non-governmental organizations encouraged supermarket shoppers to check the country of origin marking on the product package and to ask their server at a restaurant to find out the shrimp’s source. If restaurants can’t answer the question, customers should order another menu item, it recommended.
   The boycott is the latest area of trade tension between the United States and Mexico after U.S. President Donald Trump questioned the viability of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has played a foundational role in Mexico’s domestic manufacturing resurgence and export activity for 23 years.
   The New York Times last month ran a feature story about the plight of the vaquita.