Totoaba Tales – Part I: The Mexican Story

International contraband trafficking, Mexican drug cartels, Chinese black markets, extortion and murder – this sounds like an action-packed Hollywood thriller. Unfortunately, it is the true story of how disrespect for nature and the allure of copious profits are threatening the world’s smallest porpoise, the vaquita (“little cow”), with extinction.

Dead vaquita. (Photo Credit: Ernesto Mendez / PROFEPA)

Dead vaquita. (Photo Credit: Ernesto Mendez / PROFEPA)

How Illegal Totoaba Fishing Impacts the Vaquita

The totoaba is a large, rare oceanic fish, endemic to Mexico’s Northern Gulf of California, that can reach over six feet in length and 220 lbs. In 1975, the Mexican government banned totoaba fishing. Despite the ban, illegal poachers are hell bound on capturing the fish due to the high price of dried totoaba swim bladders, which has surged since 2011 on Chinese black markets. Last year, Greenpeace conducted an undercover study in Hong Kong and found the venerated swim bladders sold for over $5,000 USD each, with the most expensive specimen priced at over $600,000 USD!

The demand for this strange and illicit animal product is driven by the belief that consuming it can bring amazing health benefits. However, no substantial research backs this claim.

Confiscated totoaba. (Photo Credit: PROFEPA)

Confiscated totoaba. (Photo Credit: PROFEPA)

In their search for the totoaba and other seafood products like shrimp, Mexican fishermen unintentionally snag the vaquita porpoise (also endemic to the Northern Gulf of California) in their gillnets. Scientists recently estimated less than 60 vaquita remain. Last April, in an attempt to stop vaquita bycatch, the Mexican government implemented a two-year ban on gillnet fishing in the Northern Gulf.

“It [the Northern Gulf] is supposed to be a reserve,” Oona Layolle, captain of the Sea Shepherd’s R/V Martin Sheen, told Planet Experts. “Not only vaquita are dying, it’s white sharks, whales, rays – lots of endangered and protected animals go there to spawn and they end up on illegal nets.”

Oona’s vessel recently returned from operation Milagro II where she and her crew patrolled the Northern Gulf for illegal fisherman, conducted research, documented the journey and shared findings.

The Sea Shepherd is on the front lines of an international movement in which NGOs, Chinese authorities, the Mexican Government and Navy are working together to stop poaching and save the vaquita from extinction. Despite these efforts, illegal fishing continues and the vaquita are increasingly threatened.

Vaquita or Gulf of California Harbor Porpoise (Phocoena sinus), killed in gill net intended for sharks. Sea of Cortez near San Felipe, Mexico. (Photo Credit: Unknown)

Vaquita or Gulf of California Harbor Porpoise (Phocoena sinus), killed in gill net intended for sharks. Sea of Cortez near San Felipe, Mexico. (Photo Credit: Unknown)

Lack of Government Oversight

The Mexican government dedicated $70 million to the gillnet moratorium, a substantial portion of which was to be distributed to local fisherman (in places like San Filipe and El Golfo de Santa Clara) to compensate them for not fishing. However, “The money the government invested in paying the fisherman isn’t being equally distributed,” said the captain of the R/V Martin Sheen. “Something like 40 percent of the money goes to just 30 people.”

Last April, Mexican President Peña Nieto announced plans to heighten surveillance of the region by increasing the number of enforcement officers from the Navy and PROFEPA (Mexico’s EPA equivalent). Yet, what they say differs from what they do.

PROFEPA patrolling. (Photo via PROFEPA)

PROFEPA patrolling. (Photo via PROFEPA)

“I requested information about how many enforcement officers were in the area since president Nieto took office,” said Alejandro Olivera of the local Center for Biological Diversity. “There were only two enforcement officers from PROFEPA at the same time they announced increases in surveillance.”

According to Olivera, both the Navy and PROFEPA stated plans to use drones to monitor illegal fishing activity in the Northern Gulf. After formally requesting information from the government, he found that the drones used by PROFEPA were donated.

“We are talking about the amateur drones that you can buy on Amazon,” he explained, “so they don’t have more than 20-30 minutes of autonomy. And it turns out, the Navy isn’t using any drones to survey the vaquita habitat.” 

The environmentalist is skeptical of the government’s conservation efficacy. “My point is, a lot of the announcements done by the President and the government are not true or are partially true.”

In addition to the lack of government follow-through, existing laws and consequences fall short of deterring illegal poaching.

“There is a lot of illegal fishing at night,” said Captain Oona. The Navy and PROFEPA are monitoring the vaquita’s habitat during the day, which has reduced illicit activity during that time, she said.



“The fishing ban does not include all fisheries,” said Alejandro. “The Corvina (a fish used in popular local cuisine) fishery can still fish and this fishery is used as a decoy for totoaba poachers who use the Corvina permits and boats to transport illegal totoaba net and fish.”

When the poachers are caught, they don’t face significant repercussions. “The laws are not very logical,” argues the sea captain. “When they arrest the fisherman, the fines are really low compared to the price of the totoaba. They go out very easily because they can easily pay the fines. That’s a huge problem.”

To convict and further detain the illegal fisherman, PROFEPA has to send formal requests to the government to conduct more research and deeper investigation. “But the officials are not doing their jobs,” said Alejandro.

“The regulations are not working because of corruption at lower levels of government in San Filipe and surrounding areas,” reported Captain Oona.

Corruption, Extortion and Organized Crime

Earlier this year, a known totoabero (totoaba poacher), José Isaías Armenta, and a policeman, Armando Valdez, were killed. It appears that policemen were trying to extort the fisherman but there was a conflict, which resulted in the two deaths.

Totoaba in the wild.

Totoaba in the wild.

“The crime is getting more complicated, and all of this is happening because of the corruption and the simulation of monitoring. The governments are pretending to protect the environment, but those same governments are authorizing the corruption,” said Dr. Jorge Figueroa, councilman for the National Action Party and former Mayor of San Luis Río Colorado.

Government officials aren’t the only ones suspected of reeling in some of the catch. “We hear more rumors that the cartels are getting involved because the totoaba swim bladders are so lucrative – it equals drug money,” Oona said. “They are calling it the ‘cocaine of the sea.’ It’s easier to get out of trouble smuggling swim bladders than drugs.”

How are the swim bladders getting from Mexico to the streets of Hong Kong and other Chinese markets?

“They hide the totoaba swim bladder under cars and in truck beds. They also arrested some women who had swim bladders on their belly. What they do is smuggle them over the border to the United States, then fly to China because there are more flights from the States than from Mexico,” said the Sea Shepherd. “Now, reinforcement at the border is getting harder to pass, so they are trying to go more directly from Mexico to China by plane.”

Is It Too Late to Save the Vaquita?

“We have to try! Until it’s over, its never too late,” said Captain Oona. “Other marine mammals have come back from near extinction. The fur seal from Guadalupe Island got to 15 individuals, now there are more than 10,000 because of law enforcement and protection of the area from poaching activities.”

To save the vaquita, law enforcement needs to up their game. “The laws need to be reinforced so the poachers don’t think it’s so easy to fish the totoaba,” the ship captain said. “The government should also investigate corruption of local law enforcement.”

Photo via PROFEPA

Photo via PROFEPA

In reality, the most effective measure would be to completely stop fishing in the Northern Gulf of California. “No fishing at all, not even sport fishing,” he said.

Short of a complete ban, the Sea Shepherd and other conservation groups are pushing to extend the two-year gillnet fishing ban, which is supposed to end next April. “We really want the ban to be permanent because the vaquita has one calf every two years. If the ban is only for two years, then all the conservation efforts will go to waste and all the money invested in protecting of the vaquita will be pointless.”

Stopping fisherman at the source is important but demand is driving the industry. “It’s critical that China spreads this information to stop the black market” Captain Oona said. “If you stop the demand, then the whole market will stop.”

Stay tuned for the Totoaba Tales Part II, when Planet Experts investigates Chinese black markets, cultural factors driving consumption and information campaigns aimed to stop it.

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