Hakai Magazine

vaquitas swimming
Two of the estimated nine vaquita that remain in the world swim in the Gulf of California. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

Taking Down Mexico’s Totoaba Cartels Helps with Vaquita Conservation

Authorities in Mexico have dismantled cartels trafficking totoaba, a prized fish linked to the decline of endangered vaquita porpoises.

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by Maxwell Radin

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This article was originally published in Mongabay and is reproduced here with permission.

Some of Mexico’s most ambitious and successful wildlife traffickers are now in jail, officials announced January 3, 2023.

Mexico’s navy confirmed in a press conference that members of cartels dedicated to the trafficking of totoaba have been arrested and put in prison, effectively dismantling some of the main organized crime groups contributing to declining fish populations in the Gulf of California.

Since 2019, officials have managed to arrest seven members of the “Totoaba Cartel” and the leader of the “Cartel of the Sea,” both of whom targeted the endangered fish species for its treasured swim bladder, considered a delicacy when dried and sold at markets in China.

Now, those groups appear to be defunct, the navy says.


Totoaba are targeted by clandestine fisheries for the swim bladder, which can fetch up to US $80,000 per kilogram. Photo courtesy of Semarnat

Totoaba bladders can go for between US $20,000 and $80,000 per kilogram, Mongabay previously reported, earning them the nickname “the cocaine of the sea.”

The arrested cartel members were Mexican and Chinese. They provided fishermen with the expensive nets needed to catch totoaba and then smuggled their bladders to China—often on commercial flights.

Last year, Mongabay reported on the difficulty of developing conservation measures for the vaquita, as some experts believe the issue should be left to crime specialists, not biologists or activists.

Mexico’s Gulf of California, where the illegal fishing of totoaba takes place, is also home to the vaquita, a porpoise approximately a meter and a half long that often gets caught in the fishing nets. As a result, there are only around nine vaquita left, experts believe, leading to a growing response from the government and conservation groups to set up patrols and monitoring systems.

Over the last three years, the navy has carried out over 14,000 boat inspections and over 6,500 vehicle inspections. It also checked 37 warehouses and other buildings. In addition to the cartel arrests, officials managed to confiscate 744 illegal fishing nets.

vaquita in fishing net

Vaquita are collateral damage in the illegal totoaba fishery. Photo courtesy of Semarnat

Admiral José Rafael Ojeda Durán, the top official for the navy, said at the press conference that the government has installed radar around “zero-tolerance zones” and worked to create a culture of reporting among local fishermen.

The efforts were carried out in coordination with the Secretariat of Agriculture and Rural Development, Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources, and the National Commission for Aquaculture and Fisheries.

Mongabay has reported on other criminal organizations’ interest in trafficking totoaba bladders—as well as the resurgence of trafficking groups even after major arrests were made—suggesting that threats against marine life in the gulf could continue.

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Cite this Article: “Taking Down Mexico’s Totoaba Cartels Helps with Vaquita Conservation,” Hakai Magazine, Jan 25, 2023, accessed July 19th, 2024, https://hakaimagazine.com/news/taking-down-mexicos-totoaba-cartel-helps-with-vaquita-conservation/.

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