U.S. Cracks Down on Mexican Seafood After Turtle Deaths

The government could block imports from Mexico after the country allowed more than 2,000 loggerhead sea turtles to die in fishing nets each year.
(Photo: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
Aug 18, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Mexico’s fishers are killing as many as 2,000 endangered loggerhead sea turtles every year, and the United States government wants it to stop.

If the sea turtle deaths don’t decline, and quickly, the federal government could impose sanctions on some Mexican seafood, blocking its import into the lucrative U.S. market, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced on Friday.

The move came just a few days after the fisheries service proposed new rules that would protect marine mammals around the world. It also comes six months after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration identified six nations—Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Nigeria, Nicaragua, and Portugal—as having large levels of “illegal, unreported and unregulated” fishing that negatively impacts endangered species.

In Mexico’s case, that illegal fishing took place in the Gulf of Ulloa, an important loggerhead breeding site off the coast of Baja California. The region is also an economically valuable halibut fishery, where fishers use mile-long gillnets to catch every fish they can find. The nets routinely kill thousands of loggerheads every year as bycatch.

The sea turtle action is the first “negative certification” taken under the U.S. High Seas Driftnet Fishing Moratorium Protection Act, which allows the government to protect endangered marine species from fishing bycatch by nations that do not sufficiently protect sea turtles and other wildlife. The act allows the president to block seafood imports until a country improves its regulatory framework and it can be granted a “positive certification.”

The drift-net act “is one of NOAA's tools to improve bycatch management globally,” said Kate Brogan, public affairs specialist with the fisheries service. She added that “NOAA will also continue to work with Mexico to encourage actions to address the bycatch of North Pacific loggerhead sea turtles,” which the agency has been doing for the past six months ago.

Mexico has already enacted several new regulations to help conserve sea turtles, but conservation groups say they aren’t enough.

“The regulations are only temporary,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. They will only be in place from October 2015 through April 2017, meaning they cover just the 2016 summer fishing season.

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The regulations also allow Mexican fishers to kill up to 90 loggerhead sea turtles each year. “That’s much too high,” said Uhlemann. “Comparable fisheries in the U.S. are only allowed to kill two loggerheads a year, because [the fisheries service] believes additional deaths may jeopardize the loggerheads’ survival.”

Uhlemann said she hopes the drift-net act helps address the discrepancies between the two neighboring countries’ regulations. “We are encouraging the U.S. to issue strong and swift sanctions against Mexico, to pressure Mexico to get serious about saving sea turtles and also to send a strong message to the world that the U.S. is willing to use its lucrative market to protect imperiled wildlife wherever it is found,” she said.

Meanwhile, consumers seeking to protect sea turtles may want to avoid Mexican halibut or other fish from the Gulf of Ulloa. But that won’t be an easy task. “Seafood is still very poorly marked and labeled, so it’s very hard for consumers, or even seafood purveyors, to know for sure exactly where their seafood is coming from,” Uhlemann said.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch identifies Pacific halibut as a sustainable choice only if it comes with a label from the Marine Stewardship Council certified fisheries program.

The fisheries service said the U.S commerce secretary will now develop recommendations for the president regarding which seafood products will receive import restrictions.