You might be wondering, “How can an international trade agreement protect whales?” The short answer is the current trade agreement between the United States, Mexico, and Canada not only dictates how trade happens between the countries, but also requires the three governments to uphold and effectively enforce their own environmental laws, which includes laws to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.
If a country is not effectively enforcing its laws, each of the other countries can use the agreement to force stronger action through trade sanctions. In some cases, international trade agreements can be powerful tools to improve the way the oceans are managed and achieve positive outcomes for species like whales and sharks.
Oceana launched a campaign in 2019 to protect North Atlantic right whales. With only around 330 whales remaining, this species is on the brink of extinction. The biggest threats to these whales are entanglement in fishing gear and deadly ship strikes, yet the U.S. government continues to drag its feet on stronger protections for the North Atlantic right whale. Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), Endangered Species Act (ESA), and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the United States is on the hook to do more.
Oceana has campaigned to encourage, prompt, prod, and demand action by the U.S. government to protect North Atlantic right whales from known threats. But much like being asked to grade your own homework, the U.S. says that it is doing enough for North Atlantic right whales.
Having an objective, outside group evaluate these important issues is much needed and long overdue.
WHAT IS THE USMCA?
The U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) is a free trade agreement between the three countries that replaced the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 2020. Among a long list of issues covered by the USMCA is an enhanced requirement that each country effectively enforce its environmental laws including the MMPA, ESA, and NEPA.
The USMCA also has a process where an outside person or organization can report information to its Commission on Environmental Cooperation (CEC) if a country is not enforcing its own environmental laws. In October 2021, Oceana filed the first-ever Submission on Enforcement Matters (SEM) against the U.S. government under the USMCA. Oceana stated that the U.S. government is failing to effectively enforce its environmental laws to adequately protect the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale from entanglements and collisions with boats.
In June 2022, the Secretariat determined that our submission shows a need to prepare a factual record – an independent investigation that will objectively look at the facts related to the enforcement of U.S. environmental laws. The next step is for the Commission to vote to move forward with the investigation.
Oceana in Canada, Mexico, and United States are working together to encourage the Commission to take action to protect the North Atlantic right whale. In July 2022, the CEC met in Mérida, Mexico. Oceana representatives from the United States and Mexico held a press conference, met with CEC Secretariat staff, and encouraged decisionmakers to vote in favor of developing a factual record on Oceana’s submission for North Atlantic right whales.
As the U.S. campaign director for the North Atlantic right whale campaign, I shared the following thoughts at the press conference:
“The United States is clearly violating the terms of the USMCA. The U.S. government cannot require Mexico and Canada to uphold their environmental laws under the USMCA, while failing to enforce its own laws to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales. It’s time to hold the United States accountable — the U.S. must do more to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales before they disappear forever. Oceana encourages the Council members on the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) to follow the advice of the CEC experts and vote yes to start the investigation into the United States’ failure to uphold its laws to save North Atlantic right whales from extinction. With only around 330 North Atlantic right whales remaining, the time to act is now.”
WHAT COMES NEXT?
The fate of Oceana’s submission now lies with the CEC Council members from the U.S. EPA and their counterparts in Mexico and Canada. They are expected to vote within 60 working days of the Secretariat’s determination and after the publication of a Spanish translation of the Secretariat recommendation (which occurred in mid-July). The Council, however, has consistently missed deadlines when reviewing previous submissions. To help save these endangered species, including the North Atlantic right whale, the Council must vote “yes” to develop a factual record in a timely manner.
Following a “yes” vote, the Secretariat would then have 180 working days to prepare the draft factual record. Ultimately, following the investigation, Canada or Mexico could implement trade sanctions against the United States if the United States fails to fix its weaknesses.
While the United States continues to fall short in protecting this iconic species on the brink of extinction, Oceana will use every possible tool, including an international trade agreement, to force action. The United States must act now, before it is too late.
To learn more about Oceana’s binational campaign to save North Atlantic right whales, click here.