Failure to Implement Whistleblower Program Linked to the Vaquita’s Impending Extinction

Vaquita-loaded-in-truck-whistleblower program not implemented U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service unable to account for millions of dollars Congress allocated to pay whistleblower incentives.

According to an exposé by environmental journalist Richard Schiffman published today by Earth Island Journal, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has no “proactive whistleblower program despite receiving $13 million” from the federal government earmarked to pay whistleblower incentive rewards. The report states that in response to a Freedom of Information Act Request (FOIA) filed by the National Whistleblower Center, the FWS admitted that it is unable to account for most of the funds Congress allocated for this purpose. Requested records found that the agency can only account for $13,704 of the $5.6 million granted to it during the period between 2003 and 2016.

The article recounts the plight of the Vaquita, the world’s smallest cetacean, which have decreased by 50% over the past 6 years and are rapidly headed toward extinction. The Vaquita are impacted by the high demand in China for bladders from a species of fish called the Totoaba. They end up in nets designed to entangle the Totoaba and drown, as unintended bycatch.

Schiffman refers to the FWS’s failure to implement a whistleblower reward program to offer payments in exchange for information that can be used to prosecute wildlife criminals, a “story of missed opportunities…and loss.” Having a reward program in place could have had an impact on saving the Vaquita, according to Stephen M. Kohn, Executive Director of the National Whistleblower Center, “A fisherman in Mexico, say, gets $10,000 right off the bat for providing useful tips.” He continues, “If the information leads to a prosecution that brings down a smuggling ring, he can earn tens, maybe hundreds of thousands more if the court grants [him] 10 percent of the settlement money, as often happens in such cases. Now that would be hard to resist!”

In regard to implementing existing whistleblower reward laws and passing new anti-trafficking legislation, Kohn said “We don’t have time to waste. Extinction is forever, and the clock is ticking.”

Read: Missed Opportunity: Is the vaquita’s plight linked to the US government’s failure to take advantage of one of its most powerful wildlife crime-fighting tools?

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