MEXICO CITY (AP) — Residents of the Mexican Caribbean reef island of Banco Chinchorro near Belize have hunted the meat and salmon-pink shells of the queen conch for generations. As populations have shrunk in recent decades, Mexico has imposed restrictions and bans on shellfish fishing.
Despite these measures, including a total five-year fishing ban in 2012, the species has continued to decline. Yet the queen conch is one of many vulnerable species not included on Mexico’s national endangered species list.
As Mexico’s environmental agency celebrates the country’s biodiversity during Thursday’s National Conservation Day, conservationists say the government’s own endangered species registry is too short and slow to update.
Despite a legal obligation to review and update the list at least every three years, there have been no updates since August 2019. In the meantime, species like the queen conch have had no federal environmental protections and are steadily heading toward extinction.
Mexico’s environmental department did not respond to emails and text messages asking why there have been no updates to the list since 2019.
Officials are accepting proposals to list species for public comment only during certain time periods. That system is opaque and slow, says Alejandro Olivera, a marine biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity.
“We should not wait for the government to request new lists because species can become extinct or populations can recover from one year to the next,” Olivera said from La Paz, on the Gulf of California.
By comparison, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service accepts submissions on a rolling basis and must provide an initial response within 90 days. It’s still not perfect, Olivera said, but better than a system of filing windows.
“Even if you have the hard data, the scientific information to prove that one species is truly endangered, the process is not open,” Olivera said. “You can’t just submit the proposal.”
The Mexican government last opened a comment window in April 2021, when the Center for Biological Diversity submitted a proposal to list the queen conch, but the group never heard back.
One of the experts gathered to weigh in on these proposals was Angélica Cervantes Maldonado, professor of plant biology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. She acknowledged that it has taken much longer than the mandatory three-year period to update the list.
“I know the species situation is complicated and can deteriorate very quickly, but unfortunately the regulatory process here is much slower,” she said, adding that the department expects to issue updates around April.
Mexico’s current list was signed into law in 2010 and has been updated three times since then, once to make it shorter.
While some species, such as the queen conch, are not federally protected at all, many more species are listed, but with far less danger than the science suggests, Olivera said.
According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the population of elkhorn coral, another Caribbean species with large ocher branches that grow to more than 6 feet tall, has declined by 97% in the past four decades.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists elkhorn coral as critically endangered, the last step before extinction. Meanwhile, elkhorn coral has the lowest risk level on Mexico’s list, despite calls from scientists to revise its classification for at least five years.
Compared to the IUCN, last updated in 2022, the Mexican government lists 250 fewer species in need of some form of protection, and most fall into the lowest risk category. In particular, Mexico lists 535 species as endangered, which is the worst risk assessment, while IUCN lists nearly 1,500 species in Mexico as endangered or critically endangered.
If a species is listed in any category in Mexico, any commercial use of that species is prohibited. Higher categories carry higher restrictions, fines and potential for criminal prosecution. The listing also impacts other permitting and pollution regulations, limiting development in areas where the listed species are known to occur in some cases.
According to the IUCN, Mexico ranks third in the number of endangered species, after Ecuador and Madagascar.
Other Latin American countries have also struggled to reconcile cumbersome regulatory procedures with rapidly changing numbers of endangered species.
In 2014, Brazil passed legislation requiring the lists to be revised every year, but there has been only one update since then, said Rodrigo Jorge, a biologist with the government’s environmental department.
To speed up the process, Jorge’s team launched an online database of endangered species in August, called Salve, which can be continuously updated. Not every species needs to be studied every year, he said, but it is important that there are regular opportunities to review the list and make changes.
With Salve’s help, Jorge says Brazil’s list, last revised in 2022, will be updated again next year, the fastest turnaround since the country started categorizing endangered species.
For now, however, no species can be labeled as “threatened” without going through the official, slower regulatory process, and the listings on Salve do not themselves carry any legal obligations, but instead rely on the “goodwill” of companies, said Jorge.
Ahead of Thursday’s National Conservation Day, the Mexican government took to social media to promote its plan to save the vaquita porpoise, which has been a victim of bycatch fishing for years.
In what it called “an exercise of unprecedented transparency” in September, the department sent delegates to a UNESCO meeting in Saudi Arabia to report on progress in protecting the vaquita.
Olivera says the government is “telling lies or half-truths” and vaquita populations continue to decline. “They claim success, but… the only way to measure the success of the vaquitas is when we have more vaquitas.”
There are There are only 10 vaquitas left in the wild, all in the Gulf of California.