U.S. lawsuit seeks to sanction Mexico for failing to protect world's smallest porpoise

A mother and calf vaquita, a critically endangered small tropical porpoise native to Mexico's Gulf of California, surface in the waters off San Felipe, Mexico in this handout picture taken in 2008. Paula Olson/NOAA Fisheries/Handout via REUTERS

MEXICO CITY, Dec 14 (Reuters) - Environmental groups filed a lawsuit in a U.S. federal court on Wednesday, pressuring the U.S. government to sanction Mexico for failing to protect the critically endangered vaquita, the world's smallest porpoise, according to court documents.

The lawsuit seeks to pressure the U.S. government to sanction Mexico under a fisheries law called the "Pelly Amendment" to the Fishermen's Protective Act, which authorizes the U.S. President to embargo imports of wildlife products, including fish, from another country.

The vaquita porpoise, found in Mexico's upper Gulf of California, has over the last five years seen its population devastated to the point that it is now considered in "serious danger of extinction."

The porpoises often become entangled and die in fishing nets used to catch shrimp, totoaba, and other finned fish. Biologists estimate between only six and 20 vaquitas were left in 2018.

"The government of Mexico is still sitting idly by as the vaquita dies," said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), one of three NGOs which filed the lawsuit.

"We've tried advocacy, we've tried diplomacy, but the vaquita is out of time. We need economic pressure to force Mexico to finally wake up," she added.

The government of Mexico did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The other organizations that joined the lawsuit are the Animal Welfare Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In mid-November, CITES - an international convention to protect endangered species - told Mexico it must protect the vaquita or face sanctions early next year.

Since 2014, the U.S. government has ignored requests to ban imports of Mexican seafood.

Mexican biodiversity also faces growing risks from wildlife trafficking, much of which takes place on social media platforms, according to a recent CBD report.

Reporting by Diego Ore; Editing by David Gregorio

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