Beware of trade judges bearing gifts!
WASHINGTON D.C.––Will U.S. President Donald Trump use the highly endangered vaquita porpoise as the Trojan Horse for his efforts to strip “critical habitat” protections from the Endangered Species Act?
Protecting the vaquita as directed on July 26, 2018 by U.S. Court of International Trade judge Gary S. Katzmann would cost the Trump administration nothing, make a high-profile show of trying to save a popular but apparently doomed species, allow Trump to escalate an ongoing trade war with Mexico, and leave the burden of actually doing something to protect the last 15 to 18 vaquitas to Mexico and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.
Operating under the campaign names Operation Milagro and Operation Ghost Net, the Sea Shepherds have been patrolling the Sea of Cortez since 2014 to protect both vaquita and totoaba, an endangered fish species that inhabits the same waters.
Here comes the judge!
Poachers illegally gill-netting totoaba and accidentally drowning vaquitas who get caught in the nets are believed to be the major threat to vaquita survival.
Responding to a lawsuit brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Animal Welfare Institute, and the Center for Biological Diversity, Judge Katzmann ordered the Trump administration to ban the import of fish from “any Mexican commercial fishery that uses gill nets within the vaquita’s range.”
Such a ban would include shrimp; corvina, also known as drum fish; Sierra, also called Spanish mackerel; and chano, a fish known in the U.S. as bigeye croaker.
$16 million boon to U.S. shrimpers
The Katzmann order, if enforced, would cut off about $16 million year in shrimp and fish sales to the U.S.
This would be an economic boon to shrimpers, in particular, along the U.S. coast of the Gulf of Mexico: Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, all parts of the Trump core constituency.
And enforcing the ban would deflect attention from changes to the Endangered Species Act that the Donald Trump administration hopes to push through Congress before the fall 2018 elections.
Verdict is “lifeline the vaquita needs,” says lawyer
“A ban on gillnet-caught seafood from Mexico’s Gulf of California is the lifeline the vaquita desperately needs,” contended Giulia Good Stefani, the Natural Resources Defense Council staff attorney who argued the case before Katzmann, adding that the verdict “affirms Congress’ mandate that the United States protect not just domestic marine mammals, but foreign whales, dolphins, and porpoises as well.”
Agreed Center for Biological Diversity international program director Sarah Uhlemann, “With vaquitas on the brink of extinction, these economic sanctions are painful but necessary to push Mexican officials to finally protect these little porpoises.
“For 20 years, the Mexican government has promised to save the vaquita,” Uhlemann contended, “but failed to take meaningful action. That has to change or we’ll lose these animals forever.”
Mexico has, however, escalated efforts on behalf of the vaquita––and the totoaba. On April 22, 2018, for instance, Mexican officials arrested a Chinese citizen at the Mexico City International Airport in possession of 416 swim bladders from various fish, 355 of which were identified as having come from totoaba.
Just three days later, 417 totoaba swim bladders were found in two suitcases belonging to another Chinese citizen, said the Mexican attorney general’s office.
Sea Shepherd opposes the ban
Enforcing the Katzmann order would not actually help the vaquita, says Sea Shepherd Conservation Society founder Paul Watson, and would more likely inhibit ongoing anti-poaching efforts, as well as punishing thousands of people in the Mexican fishing industry who have no part in either poaching totoaba or drowning vaquita.
“Sea Shepherd has no involvement with this seafood ban, nor does the organization endorse it in any way,” said Watson in a prepared statement.
“Sea Shepherd suffered no hostilities from fishermen for our continued conservation efforts in the Sea of Cortez until February 2017,” Watson emphasized. “That was the month when some 50 U.S. groups,” led by the same three who filed the by U.S. Court of International Trade case, “called for a boycott of Mexican shrimp.
Skiff burned, drones shot down, ship shot at
“In retaliation, since Sea Shepherd is the only visible non-governmental organization physically operating in the area, fishermen burned a skiff with the name ‘Sea Shepherd’ on it, and threatened to assault our crew and burn our ships,” Watson recalled.
“Since then,” Watson continued, “Sea Shepherd has had drones shot down and Molotov cocktails thrown at the organization’s vessels. Poachers have also shot directly at a Sea Shepherd ship, the Sharpie, forcing Mexican federal law enforcement agents embedded on board to return fire, fortunately with no injuries on either side.”
The Sharpie, formerly the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Bainbridge Island, joined two other former U.S. Coast Guard cutters, the Farley Mowat and the John Paul DeJoria, in the Sea of Cortez in December 2017.
Paul Watson “does not agree” with punishment of legal fishers
On July 27, 2018, a day after the Katzmann verdict, Watson said, “A group of legal fishermen approached one of Sea Shepherd’s vessels stationed in Mexico, waving a newspaper with the headline ‘Trump Imposes Seafood Embargo on Mexico!’, to demand an explanation from the Sea Shepherd crew. The newspaper had used a Sea Shepherd copyrighted image of one of the Society’s former U.S. Coast Guard cutters that operates in the area in partnership with the Government of Mexico to illustrate the article announcing the seafood ban,” or more precisely, the Katzmann order that a ban be imposed.
“Sea Shepherd is actively working with the local authorities and communities in the Upper Gulf of California to protect the vaquita,” Watson added, “and does not agree with punishment of legal fishers––who are already under severe socio-economic pressure due to domestic bans on fishing in the area––for the actions of poachers. We believe in working with legal fishermen, not against them. The last thing they need is for foreigners to further oppress them into poverty. This will only discourage the local community from protecting the last remaining vaquitas.”
For similar reasons, Watson and the Sea Shepherds in December 2017 asked the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Animal Welfare Institute, and the Center for Biological Diversity to call off their ongoing boycott of Mexican shrimp.
Watson later qualified his initial extensive critique of the boycott by agreeing with AWI, the NRDC, and the Center for Biological Diversity that, “They should initiate a ban on shrimp because of the shrimp fishery,” but said they “should not link it to the vaquita, which is dangerous to the vaquita and the people trying to protect the vaquita.”
Captive breeding failed
The organizations VaquitaCPR and SEMARNAT, the Mexican Secretariat for the Environment & Natural Resources, in November 2017 indefinitely suspended attempts to capture vaquitas for captive breeding. Two vaquitas had been caught in 18 days. One, a nursing calf, was released after showing symptoms of life-threatening stress; the other, an adult female, suffered a fatal heart attack about an hour after capture.
This was all exactly as predicted to ANIMALS 24-7 many months earlier by Dolphin Project founder Ric O’Barry and Dolphin Freedom Foundation founder Russ Rector, both of whom trained dolphins for entertainment facilities before turning to anti-captivity advocacy, and Campaign to End the Obsolete Navy Marine Mammal Program founder Rick Trout, a former U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program trainer, who has led opposition to the program since 1987.
Speculation in body parts
The swim bladders of totoaba are much coveted in China, as a substitute for a fished-out Chinese coastal species, the bahaba––but not so much for consumption for presumed medicial qualities as for speculation, University of Hong Kong biology professor Yvonne Sadovy told Guinn Guilford of Quartz in 2015.
Responding to runaway inflation in 2009-2010, Sadovy explained, Chinese investors sought to stash cash in commodity investments.
Historically valued body parts of rare animals looked like a good investment to the unscrupulous, who bet that the increasing scarcity of the species involved would keep prices high, even though possession and import of body parts of internationally protected species is as illegal in China as almost anywhere else.
Investors stockpiled elephant ivory, rhino horn, and totoaba swim bladders, even if the remains could not actually be bootlegged into China for possible use or resale, and had to be kept on ice in intermediary developing world nations with easily corrupted officials.
Also having a part in putting both the vaquita and the totoaba at risk has been declining northern Gulf of California water quality, put at risk since the fresh water flow from the Colorado River which formerly refreshed the Sea of Cortez was restricted by the construction of the Hoover Dam in 1936 and the Glen Canyon dam in 1956.
This is a point that the critical habitat provisions of the Endangered Species Act could potentially be used to address, if enforced to the letter of the 1973 law as written.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, the Animal Welfare Institute, and the Center for Biological Diversity brought the case leading to the Katzmann verdict under the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.
Attack on “critical habitat” designations
However, the vaquita is legally protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as well, with proposed changes to the ESA looming in the background of whatever the Trump administration decides to do in response to Katzmann.
“What the administration is looking to enact,” explained Kurt Repanshek in the July 29, 2018 edition of National Parks Traveler, “is raising fears that it will turn many portions of the Endangered Species Act on their head.
Specially, Repanshek summarized, “Economic factors could be considered when the status of a species is reviewed for ESA protection. Species given a ‘threatened’ designation would not necessarily enjoy the same [habitat] protections as those considered ‘endangered.’ How critical habitat designations are made could ignore a species’ historic habitat that is currently unoccupied by that species.
Republican fears of losing ground
“Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s drive to open as much public land as possible to energy exploration,” Repanshek wrote, “has more than a few onlookers seeing these rule changes as designed to keep the ESA from leading to ‘critical habitat’ designations that could take some lands out of play for development.”
Elaborated Coral Davenport and Lisa Friedman of The New York Times, “The Endangered Species Act, which for 45 years has safeguarded fragile wildlife, while blocking ranching, logging and oil drilling on protected habitats, is coming under attack from lawmakers, the White House and industry on a scale not seen in decades, driven partly by fears that the Republicans will lose ground in November’s midterm elections.
“In the past two weeks,” Davenport and Friedman recounted, “more than two dozen pieces of legislation, policy initiatives and amendments designed to weaken the law have been either introduced or voted on in Congress or proposed by the Trump administration.”
Purporting to protect the vaquita by banning imports of Mexican fish could become a smokescreen for Endangered Species Act revision as dense as the haze over Yosemite and other National Parks burning even as the Trump administration denies there is any need to work to prevent further global warming.