The illegal totoaba swim bladder trade is responsible for the decline of the critically endangered vaquita porpoise
MEXICO CITY, Mexico – Nov. 26, 2020 – In a precedent-setting legal development, Mexican authorities have arrested six suspected totoaba traffickers under charges of Organized Crime – Crimes Against the Environment.
A press release issued by the Mexican Attorney General’s Office states that the arrests were made during a series of coordinated raids on Nov. 11, carried out to enforce warrants issued earlier in the year. The six individuals arrested are suspected members of a transnational criminal organization involved in the trafficking of totoaba swim bladders. The court has granted authorities two months to continue the investigation, during which time the suspects will remain in jail.
This case marks the first time these charges, which carry a possible prison sentence, have been applied in Mexico.
The totoaba is a large species of sea bass endemic to the waters of Mexico and protected under international law. Poachers catch totoabas for their swim bladders, which are often referred to as “the cocaine of the sea” due to the high price they demand on the Chinese black market.
Totoaba poaching is the primary cause of the decline of the vaquita, the world’s most endangered marine mammal, which exists only in a small region in Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California.
There are fewer than 20 vaquitas left alive.
Poachers use gillnets to catch totoabas. These nets often span several hundred feet in length and form invisible barriers under the sea. Vaquitas, which are approximately the same size as totoabas, become entangled in the deadly illegal nets and drown. Whales, dolphins, sharks, and turtles also fall victim to these illegal nets.
Sea Shepherd has been working with Mexican authorities to deter poaching and remove the illegal gillnets that threaten the survival of the vaquita since 2015. To-date, Sea Shepherd’s Operation Milagro (Spanish for “miracle”), has removed over 1,200 pieces of illegal fishing gear from the Vaquita Refuge, a UNESCO-recognized and federally-protected area in which gillnet fishing is banned.
“Sea Shepherd applauds the vision and leadership of the Mexican Attorney General’s Office and other authorities for investigating and prosecuting the environmental crime of smuggling totoaba bladders as transnational organized crime,” said Peter Hammarstedt, Sea Shepherd’s Director of Campaigns. “While Sea Shepherd ships and crew work to
confiscate illegal gillnets at sea, Mexican prosecutors are using every tool in the legal toolbox to successfully net suspected poaching ringleaders on land”.