April 21, 2023, 10:32 PM CEST
By Albinson Linares, Noticias Telemundo
BAJA CALIFORNIA, Mexico — A fish whose bladder is prized as a source of health — and the porpoises caught in the nets used to catch it — are the focus of global efforts to keep them from being fished to extinction amid an illegal but lucrative business.
Mexico was recently sanctioned by an international body for not adequately protecting the totoaba fish from being caught and sold by criminal networks as well as safeguarding the vaquita porpoise, which is caught in the nets.
Scientists and environmentalists say it’s important to put this kind of pressure on governments like Mexico. But Mexican officials say the fight against illegal fishing has to be an international effort — and experts and conservationists agree.
“The totoaba and the vaquita are endemic species of the Gulf of California, that is, they only live there, that is their habitat. That is where they feed and carry out their complete life cycle," said Luis Enríquez, a molecular ecology and biotechnology researcher at the Autonomous University of Baja California.
"But the high demand for the totoaba’s mouth in China leads to excessive extraction, and this fishing is illegal in Mexico. The worst thing is that they do it with nets in which the vaquitas also get entangled and die," Enríquez said. "These are two species threatened by the same activity. But there is a great interest in the black market. There are many people involved."
Male totoaba breeders in a tank at the Earth Ocean Farms hatchery in La Paz, Mexico, on Feb. 9.Maurico Palos / Bloomberg via Getty Images file
On March 27, Mexico was sanctioned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a global treaty that regulates wildlife, that found that the country's "action plan is not adequate."
In Chinese traditional medicine, the totoaba swim bladder is considered a source of health as well as of collagen, believed to slow down aging. It goes for thousands of dollars, and there's high demand for this species, whose capture is prohibited in Mexico due to intense overfishing. This makes totoaba bladders one of the most valuable products on the black market of illegal wildlife trafficking, and it's referred to as “the cocaine of the sea.”
Mexico has had little success in combating illegal totoaba trafficking. From 2016 to 2022, a total of 16 people have been convicted for this activity, according to data from the Office of the Federal Attorney General for Environmental Protection, obtained from 34 requests for information made by Telemundo News in collaboration with the Latin American Center for Investigative Journalism (CLIP).
“Mexico had to submit a compliance action plan and not just an action plan," Ivonne Higuero, CITES secretary general, in an interview with Telemundo News.
“Those nets are wiping out many species," Higuero said. "I have seen photos showing octopuses, turtles, shells and everything. That Sea of Cortez, which is a beauty, which is the world’s aquarium, we cannot spoil it. We have a biodiversity crisis right now.”
In addition, experts like Enríquez as well as CITES have pointed out an inconsistency in government figures regarding the seizure of illegally caught totoaba fish, which makes enforcement harder to track. For example, from 2016 to 2022, Enríquez' group has studied 2,456 totoaba bladders seized by authorities, three times more than the government’s official figure for the seizures, which was 743 during that time, according to data provided by the government to Noticias Telemundo.
On April 13, the Mexican government announced that it had approved another plan to protect the totoaba and the vaquita, thus lifting the sanction that prohibited the country from selling any of the regulated wildlife species to the other 183 nations that signed the treaty.
A vaquita porpoise.Paula Olson / NOAA via AP file
The Center for Biological Diversity, along with two other environmental organizations, sued the U.S. Department of the Interior in December 2022 to trigger sanctions and an embargo on seafood imports from Mexico.
In response, the Interior Department announced on April 7 that it will determine whether Mexico has failed to comply with its obligations to protect the vaquita porpoise and totoaba.
If it determines Mexico has failed to comply with preservation programs, the Biden administration could embargo the importation of wild seafood products from Mexico, including shrimp and fish. An announcement is expected on June 3.
According to official data cited by Traffic, a global environmental organization, from 2015 to 2019 alone, Hong Kong imported a total of 16,899 tons of fish bladders of different species, including totoaba.
Mexico's low number of sentences and convictions contrasts with the huge seizures made by authorities in several countries, including Mexico: since 2013, from 26,000 to 30,000 totoaba bladders have been seized that have made the journey from Baja California to China and, in many cases, pass through the United States, according to a database developed by Enríquez at the Autonomous University of Baja California and research by environmental NGOs such as Earth League International and Traffic, among others.
In March 2022, Brookings Institution scholar Vanda Felbab-Brown published a report, "China-Linked Wildlife Poaching and Trafficking in Mexico," in which she analyzed the problem and delved into the connections between species trafficking and organized crime groups.
“I think one of the most important conclusions of my report was that we found the presence of the narcos in the coastal areas, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco Cartel, and we found that they want to control each and every one of the fisheries, both legal and illegal, and all stages from processing to export,” Felbab-Brown said in an interview.
In 2018, the Earth League International published Operation Fake Gold, a 14-month investigation that tracked totoaba trafficking in Mexico. In that operation, the organization collected information on eight trafficking networks with a total of 1,420 people, all Chinese but with multiple local ties.
Mexico's new plan to combat illegal totoaba fishing didn't necessarily propose innovative solutions, according to activists and experts.