Crew aboard an Ensenada whale museum boat salvage abandoned nets. Crew aboard an Ensenada Whale Museum boat salvage abandoned nets.

Pricey swim bladders attract drug cartels

It's high season for catching totoaba, whose bladders fetch more than cocaine

Mexican drug cartels, Chinese traffickers and sky-high prices for the totoaba swim bladder, which make it more lucrative than cocaine, are all conspiring to push the critically endangered vaquita marina porpoise closer and closer to extinction.

In the Gulf of California, the peak — and illegal — fishing season for the endemic fish species is in full swing, having begun in late November and running through until March.

Only an estimated 30 vaquita remain in the wild and a recovery program intended to bring the species back from the brink of extinction was terminated in November.

Consequently — during the months that the high season lasts — the threat to the cetacean is greater than ever. The porpoises are often bycatch in the gillnets fishermen use to catch totoaba.

“There are two things that affect the vaquita, illegal fishing and trafficking,” said Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, the program director of the VaquitaCPR (Conservation, Protection and Recovery) Project.

“There are groups of Chinese [traffickers] in Mexico that link with organized crime to traffic the swim bladders. The demand is incredible, it’s an unbelievable business. A fisherman can get between US $500 and US $10,000 for a kilogram of totoaba swim bladders. On the international market, it goes up to US $100,000 per kilogram, a higher price than cocaine,” he added.

Eight criminal groups with links to drug cartels and human-trafficking organizations control the illegal fishing and trafficking of totoaba, according to an investigation by the non-governmental organization Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).

The groups use the Mexico City airport as their main point of exit to export the highly-prized product to China, the NGO said.

In a report called, “Facing Extinction: Survival of the Vaquita Depends on Eliminating the Illegal Trade in Totoaba,” the EIA said that “couriers are paid to transport the maws [swim bladders] inside luggage, with airport officials often bribed according to Chinese traders.”

“The USA, especially California, plays a role in the totoaba trade, both as a source of finance and a transit route between Mexico and China,” it continued.

For that reason, the United States was included in a tri-national task force to combat the illegal trafficking of the totoaba swim bladders.

Yet despite that measure, a permanent gillnet ban and the backing of high-profile supporters to protect the species, the threat to the vaquita remains.

The EIA report indicated that illegal totoaba fishing takes place year-round, generally at night to avoid detection, but recognized that activity reached a peak between November and March.

Rojas-Bracho said that the number of illegal nets set by fishermen increased during those months because it corresponds with the migratory species’ arrival in the Gulf of California.

The EIA report also said “the majority of the Chinese buyers are recent migrants to Mexico [and] . . . they usually trade in a variety of dried marine products, some of which are also illegal such as sea horses, shark fin and sea cucumber.”

After they are sold, the swim bladders are moved to “processing centers for drying and processing at underground factories” in Mexicali, Tijuana, Culiacán and Mexico City before they “are moved via a network of couriers run by drug cartels to export locations,” the report said.

With measures to conserve the dwindling vaquita population proving largely ineffective, the EIA warns that the vaquita could become extinct as soon as this year.

A boat from the Ensenada Whale Museum, which removes lost and abandoned nets from the sea where vaquitas can get trapped and die, was described by the newspaper Milenio as the “last hope,” but others fear that the measure is too little and too late to save the mammal.

In its report, the EIA recommended that Mexico establish a permanent Navy patrol in the area, expand the program to detect and remove fishing gear from the upper gulf and continue the totoaba fishing ban among other measures to fully protect the last remaining vaquitas.

Source: Milenio (sp)

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