Mexican cartels are known for smuggling drugs around the world but a report from the non-profit organization known as C4ADS suggests that cartels are pushing their main cash cow aside for something even more profitable – fish bladders.
The totoaba is native only to the Gulf of California in Mexico. After the US built the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams, the lack of water flow resulted in a devastating impact on the population of fish including the massive totoaba. Though totoaba remained a popular favorite for spear fishermen, the combination of manmade structures impacting the habitat of the fish and overfishing resulted in the fish being placed on an endangered species list in 1975, making it illegal to capture the totoaba for commercial purposes.
Though poachers have always existed, the illegal trade of the totoaba, particularly the bladders of the fish, did not skyrocket until 2013. While it is not clear exactly what sparked the black market demand for the bladders, a report from NPR speculates that it could be in part due to the depopulation of the yellow croaker, native to Asia.
In Asia, fish bladders are believed to be a health food that promotes fertility and vitality. They are often used in a soup known as fish maw. The yellow croaker, which once supplied the bladders for the soup, have been overfished to the point of near extinction. Now those who enjoy the soup are looking elsewhere.
This new black market commodity has been dubbed “aquatic cocaine” by CNN, and for good reason. Just one bladder from the fish can fetch as much as $10,000 on the Chinese market. Using traditional drug smuggling techniques, organized crime rings have managed to import millions of dollars worth of the fish within the past few years.
Experts say it isn’t only the totoaba population that is being impacted by the illegal poaching. Using large nets to catch the fish, often times the vaquita, the world’s most endangered porpoise, is caught along with the totoaba. With only 100 vaquitas left on the entire planet, experts believe that the poaching will leave the species completely extinct within only a few short years if these trends continue.
C4ADS is encouraging US, Mexican and Asian lawmakers to impose harsher sentences for those found illegally poaching or transporting the rare fish in order to combat this growing problem before it reaches epidemic proportions.