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Trade Sanctions Sought to Stop Mass Killing of Sea Turtles in Mexican Fisheries

Sarah Uhlemann - Center for Biological Diversity
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May 1, 2013

Pacific Loggerhead Turtles: In Whose Hands? Because fisheries bycatch off the Baja California peninsula is currently the greatest documented threat to the critically endangered North Pacific loggerhead turtle, the future of this ocean- and culture-connecting migratory species is primarily in the hands of Mexican fishers. Ironically, it is difficult for many of Baja California's halibut and shark fishers to understand that loggerhead turtles are endangered because they can catch up to twelve turtles in a single day.(hoytpeckham)

U.S. conservation groups formally requested trade sanctions against Mexico this week to stop the country’s massive loggerhead sea turtle bycatch. Each year Mexican fisheries off the southern Baja California peninsula kill more than 2,000 endangered loggerheads as they fish for halibut and sharks. The petition (PDF) filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network initiates a legal process that may ban some Mexican imports until Mexico reduces its sea turtle mortality.

“Loggerhead sea turtles are in danger of going extinct, but Mexico’s government is letting its fishermen entangle, hook and kill thousands of these amazing animals each year,” said Sarah Uhlemann, a senior attorney with the Center. “Mexico needs to use common-sense measures to prevent these thousands of unnecessary deaths. We need action on both sides of the border to avoid extinction.”

For nearly a decade, scientists have documented high levels of sea turtle entanglement and strandings on beaches in Baja California Sur. The area is considered a bycatch “hotspot,” as Mexican fisheries overlap with key sea turtle feeding grounds. Just last summer, sea turtle strandings reached a record high when 483 loggerhead sea turtles were found dead along a single, 25-mile stretch of coast — a 600 percent increase over already-alarming average rates. Scientists believe Baja California Sur has the highest concentration of sea turtle strandings anywhere in the world.

“The Pacific loggerheads are going extinct now, so we must end these sea turtle drownings now,” said Teri Shore, program director at Turtle Island Restoration Network ( “Any delay in halting excess bycatch in Mexico's fisheries spells doom for these vulnerable and long-lived sea turtles.”

Loggerhead sea turtles in the North Pacific Ocean are listed as endangered under both U.S. and Mexican law, but bycatch continues to threaten their existence. Sea turtles often drown after becoming entangled in gillnet gear or getting hooked on longlines that target finfish and sharks. The United States has required its fishermen to adopt sea turtle bycatch prevention measures, including closing high-risk fishing areas. But Mexico has not taken similar action to curb its loggerhead bycatch.

Under an American law referred to as the “Pelly Amendment,” the conservation groups’ petition asks the United States to officially recognize or “certify” that Mexico’s sea turtle bycatch “diminishes the effectiveness” of the Inter-American Convention for the Protection and Conservation of Sea Turtles. Under this treaty, Mexico, the United States and other nations have committed to reduce bycatch to “greatest extent practicable,” yet loggerhead bycatch remains substantially unregulated in Mexico. If the secretary of commerce agrees, President Obama may then ban Mexican imports until sea turtle bycatch is reduced.

In January, the United States “identified” Mexico for its unsustainable loggerhead bycatch under a separate U.S. law, the Protected Living Marine Resources statute, which requires nations to be formally identified, certified and sanctioned for failing to adopt bycatch measures comparable to U.S. protections.


  • Loggerhead sea turtles have reddish-brown, slightly heart-shaped top shells and can reach 3 feet in diameter. They can live more than 50 years.
  • After hatching in Japan, North Pacific Ocean loggerheads migrate more than 7,500 miles to the waters off the western Baja California peninsula to feed on red crabs, squid and sardines. The same turtles move into U.S. waters off California during El Niño years. Mature turtles then make the return trip to nest at the beaches where they themselves hatched. The population has roughly 7,000 adult females.
  • In 2011 the United States changed the legal status of North Pacific Ocean loggerheads from “threatened” to the more dire “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. Similarly, Mexico has listed the loggerhead as “in danger of extinction.”
  • Negotiated in 1996, the Inter-American Convention for the Protection and Conservation of Sea Turtles requires range states to prohibit direct killing of sea turtles, reduce bycatch, and protect key habitat areas. Nations will meet in Ecuador in June to discuss the treaty’s implementation.
  • The United States has successfully used Pelly Amendment sanctions in the past to enforce whaling quotas and stop rhino and tiger trade in Taiwan.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 500,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Turtle Island Restoration Network ( is an international marine conservation organization headquartered in California whose 60,000 members and online activists work to protect sea turtles and marine biodiversity in the United States and around the world.

  Check out Ecological Group of Costa Verde

  Check out Grupo Ecologico de Puerto Vallarta

  Check out Deep Blue Conservancy

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