For generations, the people living on Banco Chinchorro, a Caribbean island in Mexico near Belize, have been harvesting queen conch for their meat and salmon-pink shells. However, due to declining populations, Mexico has implemented restrictions and prohibitions on catching these shellfish in recent years.
Despite implementing measures such as a five-year ban on catches in 2012, the species continues to decrease in number. The queen conch is among the numerous vulnerable species that are not listed on Mexico’s national list of endangered species.
On Monday’s national conservation day, as Mexico’s environment agency commemorates the country’s biodiversity, conservationists express concerns over the government’s endangered species registry for being inadequate and inefficient in its updates.
Although it is mandated by law to regularly reassess and revise the list every three years, there have been no revisions made since August 2019. As a result, species such as the queen conch have not received federal protection, leading them closer to extinction.
The Mexican Ministry of Environment did not reply to electronic and text communications inquiring about the lack of updates to the list since 2019.
Authorities have agreed to consider suggestions for adding species to a list only at specific times for the public to provide feedback. According to marine biologist Alejandro Olivera from the Center for Biological Diversity, this method is both unclear and inefficient.
Olivera, speaking from La Paz on the Gulf of California, believes that we should not have to wait for the government to request new listings. This is because species may become extinct or populations may recover within a short period of time.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service operates differently as it allows for submissions to be made continuously, and must provide an initial response within 90 days. While it may not be flawless, according to Olivera, it is an improvement from a system with set submission periods.
According to Olivera, simply having concrete evidence and scientific data to support the fact that a particular species is at risk of extinction is not enough. The procedure for submitting a proposal is not straightforward and cannot be done without prior consideration.
In April 2021, the Mexican government provided an opportunity for comments, during which the Center for Biological Diversity proposed the listing of the queen conch. However, the group did not receive a response.
An expert, Angelica Cervantes Maldonado, who is a professor of plant biology at Mexico’s National Autonomous University, was chosen to evaluate the proposals. She recognized that the process of updating the list has exceeded the required three-year timeframe.
The individual stated that she is aware of the complex situation faced by species and how it can rapidly decline, but unfortunately, the regulatory process in this location is much slower. She also mentioned that the department plans to release updates around April.
The present roster of Mexico was formally established in 2010 and has undergone three revisions, one of which aimed to reduce its length.
According to Olivera, although some species such as the queen conch are not under federal protection, there are many others that are listed as protected but may not be considered as endangered as the scientific evidence suggests.
According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the population of elkhorn coral, a Caribbean species known for its six-foot tall ochre branches, has decreased by 97% in the last forty years.
The IUCN, also known as the International Union for Conservation of Nature, has classified elkhorn coral as critically endangered, which is the final stage before extinction. However, despite appeals from scientists for a reevaluation of its status for the past five years, elkhorn coral remains at the lowest level of endangerment on Mexico’s list.
In contrast to the 2022 update from the IUCN, the Mexican government has identified 250 fewer species that require protection, with the majority falling into the lowest risk category. Specifically, Mexico has listed 535 species as endangered, which is their most severe risk classification, while the IUCN includes almost 1,500 species in Mexico that are either endangered or critically endangered.
If a species is listed on Mexico’s list under any category, all commercial activities involving that species are prohibited. Stricter restrictions, penalties, and the possibility of legal action apply to higher categories. This list also affects other regulations for obtaining permits and controlling pollution, limiting development in certain areas where the listed species are present.
According to the IUCN, Mexico is ranked as the third country in the world with the highest number of endangered species, following Ecuador and Madagascar.
Many other countries in Latin America have faced difficulties trying to balance slow and complicated regulatory processes with the constantly evolving numbers of endangered species.
According to Rodrigo Jorge, a biologist with the Brazilian government’s environment department, legislation was passed in 2014 mandating annual revisions of listings. However, there has only been one update since then.
To accelerate the procedure, Jorge’s team introduced a digital repository of at-risk animals in August known as Salve, which can be continuously updated. According to him, not all species require annual examination, but it is crucial to have a consistent chance to evaluate the list and implement modifications.
With assistance from Salve, Jorge mentions that Brazil’s list, which was most recently modified in 2022, will undergo another update in the following year. This marks the quickest turnover since the nation started classifying endangered species.
Currently, any species cannot be classified as “threatened” without following the official and lengthy regulatory procedure. The listings on Salve do not impose any regulatory requirements, but rather depend on the voluntary actions of companies, according to Jorge.
Leading up to the national day of conservation, the Mexican government utilized social media to advocate for their efforts to protect the vaquita porpoise, a species that has been greatly affected by unintentional fishing.
In September, the department sent representatives to a UNESCO meeting in Saudi Arabia to provide an update on efforts to conserve the vaquita, stating it was an act of exceptional openness.
According to Olivera, the government is not being completely truthful about the situation and the population of vaquitas is still decreasing. She argues that the true measure of success for vaquitas will be when their numbers increase.
There are only 10 vaquitas remaining in their natural habitat, located in the Gulf of California.