US import ban on Mexican shrimp: a chance for change in the Gulf of California
Last month, the U.S. government made a courageous decision to stop imports of wild-caught shrimp from Mexico due to lack of compliance with US and Mexican turtle protection laws. U.S. inspections confirmed that many of the Mexican trawlers were not using Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) - a contraption that can help turtles to escape drowning in shrimp nets up to 97% of the time. The decision goes into effect today, April 20, 2010, and will not be reversed until the US certifies that Mexico has adequately addressed the problem.
The lack of TEDs is yet another example of the threat posed by shrimp operations in Mexico to highly endangered marine species. Just last year, NRDC and partner groups fended off a proposal by trawlers to shrimp in the only refuge of the highly endangered vaquita marina porpoise in the Gulf of California, Mexico (as I’ve discussed here). The Gulf of California, part of NRDC’s Baja BioGem, is the only home of the vaquita and key habitat for 5 of the 7 species of endangered sea turtles: green turtle, hawksbill, olive ridley, loggerhead and leatherback. Known as “the aquarium of the world” with nearly 900 species of fish, it also provides more than half of Mexico’s seafood - more than the Gulf of Mexico.
Much to its credit, the Mexican Ministry of Environment (SEMARNAT) issued a strong resolution last year that banned trawling in the vaquita refuge in the Upper Gulf of California (more here). Unfortunately, the trawl fishermen took the decision to court where it got stuck in legal red tape. The result was that the 2009-2010 shrimp season went on without much improvement (aka business as usual) and endangered species were tossed aside once again in favor of shrimp.
Shrimp and endangered species have been at odds in the region for decades, and the conflict is taking a toll on both. Vaquitas are facing extinction, sea turtles are threatened, and shrimp profits have been struggling due to less catch, depressed prices and rising fuel costs. Neither stands to have much of a future if we don’t find innovative ways to reconcile the two.
The US ban on shrimp imports has been a sensitive and controversial topic in Mexico. It is a strong measure that can be perceived as protectionist. People are resentful about potential loss of vital income and jobs. This is all understandable. However, at the end of the day, the intended goal here is to protect endangered sea turtles. The US is not asking the Mexican trawl fleet to do any more than what the US fleet has done. Furthermore, the US timed things to minimize the disruption of trade. Shrimp season closed March 31 and US authorities will review the fleet before the season opens again in August or September.
There is now a window of opportunity for all stakeholders to work together to solve the problem. Over the next few months the trawl fleet in the Gulf of California will be subject to 2 key reviews:
1) they will have to submit a new proposal and Environmental Impact Statement to Mexico’s Ministry of Environment for their operations, including in key vaquita habitat; and
2) there will be US re-inspections to check that the trawl fleet is implementing (and of course the key here….actually enforcing) the required sea turtle protections.
The new EIS should incorporate all of the recommendations made by SEMARNAT in their resolution last year. Of critical importance will be for the fleet to implement best-practices, monitor by-catch, ensure zero catch of vaquitas and turtles, and respect marine protected areas. There should be absolutely no trawling (or gillnet fishing) in the vaquita refuge. The US should not re-certify Mexico’s imports until there is clear evidence that Mexican trawlers are using the TEDs and not catching sea turtles.
And finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention that the US is the number one importer of Mexican shrimp. As a consumer, you can help the vaquita and sea turtles by asking informed questions about where your shrimp comes from and how it was plucked out of the ocean. NRDC’s sustainable seafood guide can help you make sure that your choices protect endangered species and support responsible fishermen.
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