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Corruption, impunity in Mexico wiping out world’s smallest porpoise

As few as eight vaquita marinas could be left in the Gulf of California, and the fervor for what has come to be known as the “cocaine of the sea” could wipe them out completely if drastic measures are not taken.

SAN FELIPE, Mexico (CN) — When the tide goes out in San Felipe, tourists cede the beach to the fishermen. Rigs hauling boats constantly ply the broad strip of squelchy sand exposed by the receding waters of the Gulf of California until well after the sun goes down. 

Visitors squeezing chipotle mayo onto shrimp tacos in the seafront restaurants are largely unaware that the hustle and bustle in the lower corner of their picturesque moonrise vista is part of an illegal international wildlife trade network that threatens the survival of the world’s smallest marine mammal, the vaquita marina.

Things haven’t looked good for the vaquita for decades, but the last few years have brought the species to the brink of extinction. Endemic and exclusive to the Upper Gulf of California, the pint-size porpoise has become an unfortunate bycatch of fishing operations in the area, primarily the illegal catching of totoaba. 

Listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, the totoaba is a large member of the drum family whose swim bladder is prized in traditional Chinese medicine for its supposed health benefits. 

With totoaba swim bladders — also called fish maws — fetching around $4,000 a pound on the black market, the product has been dubbed the “cocaine of the sea,” and like a parasite the criminal element in the San Felipe area has grown fat on easy profits. A lawsuit brought by environmentalists against the U.S. Interior Department this past December claimed that totoaba fish maws have been known to sell for as high as $100,000 a kilogram, about $45,000 a pound.

Although vaquitas can become entangled in gill nets for shrimp and smaller fish as well, the nets used to snag totoaba are the deadliest, according to the world’s leading vaquita specialist Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho.

He and other biologists estimate that as few as eight vaquitas could be left. The IUCN has labeled it critically endangered, and little is being done to check the illicit activity that is pushing the species closer to the group's final classification: extinct.

The desiccated heads of totoaba lay among other marine refuse dumped in an empty lot in San Felipe. The smell of rotting fish led to several such dump sites near the the town's main beach. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

“Corruption and its evil twin impunity are what is driving the vaquita to extinction,” said Rojas-Bracho, director of the whales team for the Canadian conservation group Ocean Wise. 

Unfortunately for the vaquita — and for Mexican exporters of legal wildlife products — corruption and the utter lack of consequences for it have brought the situation to a critical point, despite the country’s best efforts to save the vaquita.

In late March, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) sanctioned Mexico for failing to rein in the illegal fishing and trade decimating the vaquita. Mexico presented an action plan it hoped would comply with CITES recommendations for protecting the vaquita in February, but it was rejected as inadequate. 

Mexico outlawed totoaba fishing in 1975, a ban that remains in vigor to this day. In 1977, the totoaba became the first fish to be put on the CITES list of species whose trade is allowed only in exceptional circumstances. 

The latest sanctions bar Mexico from exporting plant and animal products regulated by the CITES agreement, the most lucrative of which are mahogany timber, crocodile leather, tarantulas, pet reptiles, cactuses and other plants. 

The prohibition caught these other export industries by surprise. A crocodile farm in Veracruz that exports the animal’s leather was still unaware of the ban in early April, and a mahogany exporter in Quintana Roo said his local cooperative is now scrambling to find more buyers in Mexico.

“We’re now in the worst situation possible,” said Rojas-Bracho. “The worst situation for the vaquita, the worst situation for the fishermen and, now with the CITES issue, it is also very bad for groups that export precious woods or other products on the CITES list.”

A fishing boat motors through the blue-green water of the Gulf of California in the bay at San Felipe. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

The World Wildlife Fund said in a statement that while it supports the sanctions, it is also worried about the consequences they could have for exporters of legally traded wildlife products.

“The CITES resolution affects the economy of Mexican families and communities that make a living — legally and in accordance with regulatory frameworks — by exporting wild flora and fauna,” the organization said, urging authorities to take meaningful action to stop illegal totoaba fishing.

Corruption permeates not only the federal fishing and environmental protection agencies, but also local cooperatives and the navy, which has been tasked with enforcement efforts. Sailors momentarily stop illegal fishing operations when they are spotted, but rarely make arrests, according to reports by fishermen and biologists.

This has allowed professional criminals to take over the fishing game in San Felipe. Ask a fisherman hanging around the slipway at the north end of the beach and he will most likely say something similar to what José Juan Hernández told Courthouse News one recent afternoon: “The vaquita is a myth.”

He and two fellow fisherman blamed nearly every other stakeholder in the situation except themselves as they prepared their boats in a vacant lot a couple blocks from San Felipe’s main beach. 

“This is all the fault of bad government and gringo interest groups,” said fisherman José Manuel Robles. “We’re the ones who have to live here.”

Even after claiming that the vaquita marina does not exist, they chalked the animal’s impending extinction up to factors like the trickle of water from the Colorado River, a nearby gold mine owned by Mexico’s richest man Carlos Slim, or oil prospecting in the gulf. 

Several other fishermen approached at random had similar accusations, most touting the Colorado River water theory. The science, however, does not support their claims. 

“There is not a single paper that will show that the lack of flow of the Colorado River has impacted vaquita survival rates, mortality rates or birth rates,” said Rojas-Bracho. 

Fishermen trying to get by on an honest day’s work have become few and far between in San Felipe, and those who do face great risk. Members of a local fishing cooperative that promotes responsible fishing practices estimated that as many as nine out of 10 fishermen in San Felipe are “bucheros,” elements of criminal groups who profit from totoaba swim bladders, known as “buches” in Spanish. 

Fishing boats called "pangas" in the local lingo sit in trailers on a street near the spillway on San Felipe's main beach. Dozens of such boats depart from the spillway each afternoon, while local and federal authorities do nothing to stop them. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

One local fisherman who Rojas-Bracho described as a “genius” gear designer recently proved that his custom alternative netting and practices could pull in more fish and shrimp than gill nets while avoiding bycatch of totoaba, sea turtles and other protected species.

But his gear and techniques take quite a bit more elbow grease than gillnetting, something San Felipe’s illegal totoaba fishermen — who as a group have been dubbed the Cartel of the Sea —  were not too keen on taking up. 

He and others in the cooperative who spoke to Courthouse News on condition of anonymity due to safety concerns. Bucheros threatened to harm him and his property if he didn’t quiet down. Others described having guns put to their heads, beatings and other forms of physical violence meant to silence them. 

“They’re capable of anything — they’ll beat us up, kill us, whatever,” said another who has also been threatened. He and his peers accused the bucheros of not even being fishermen by trade but rather drug traffickers from elsewhere who came to San Felipe to get in on the fish maw racket. 

But for the cooperative fishermen, the buck stops at the top.


“The problem is the authorities, not the fishermen,” said the fisherman who designed his own trawl. “As long as the authorities don’t do their job, people are going to go out to fish totoaba.”

Mexico has responded to international pressure from groups like CITES and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society with several actions meant to curb the illegal totoaba take. But gill net bans, zero-tolerance zones, monitoring, enforcement and other actions have not worked. 

Fraud afflicted a subsidy program meant to disincentivize fishing, prompting the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to end it in 2019. Concrete blocks installed in the vaquita’s habitat in 2022 tore nets in half, leaving large swaths pinned to the seafloor to go on trapping marine life indefinitely.

A totoaba carcass, netting and other dead marine animals and detritus sit atop a pile of garbage in an empty lot across the street from the entrance to the spillway where totoaba fisherman put in their boats each afternoon in San Felipe. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

While such policies and actions signal good intentions by some in public administration, the vaquita’s dwindling numbers, the CITES sanctions and other recent events reveal that the criminal element is winning out in the highest levels of government in Mexico. 

“The accomplishments Mexico has achieved in the zero-tolerance area and in reducing illegal fishing there and — at least — in parts of the vaquita refuge are commendable,” said D.J. Schubert, a wildlife biologist with the Washington-based Animal Welfare Institute. “But it simply has to do more if it wants to convince CITES that it’s on the right track and provide justification for withdrawing the sanctions.”

Doing more, however, may be an impossible ask for the current government. The recent release of a man believed to be the head of the Cartel of the Sea, for example, has put the impunity plaguing Mexico’s justice system into glaring relief. 

Arrested on charges of organized crime in November 2020, Sunshine Rodríguez Peña was released in February after a federal judge ruled that he saw no solid evidence in the more than 20 witness testimonies presented by the prosecution, despite hearing from security officers and cabinet members. 

Biologist Rojas-Bracho and the cooperative fishermen all confirmed that either Rodríguez or people in his group had threatened or harassed them at some point.

Rodríguez declined a request for interview, saying in a voice message: “I no longer want to publicize my views on the vaquita or fishing.”

The presumed cartel leader has been called out for asserting that the vaquita does not exist and has been photographed leading a march with a sarcastically worded banner: “We’ll save the vaquita even if the people die starving!”

Likely totoaba fishermen in San Felipe haul their boat back to town after fishing during the afternoon. With totoaba swim bladders going for $4,000 a pound on the black market, illegal fishing — and the bycatch wiping out the vaquita marina — will not stop without enforcement both on the sea and in speculative financial markets, experts said. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

Conapesca and Mexico’s environmental secretariat Semarnat did not respond to requests for interview or comment. But the latter said in an Apr. 5 press release that it continues to conduct protection efforts in the Upper Gulf of California in coordination with other government agencies and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. 

President López Obrador announced last week that he had sent a group of eight Semarnat officials to Geneva, Switzerland, to speak with the CITES secretariat about removing the sanctions. 

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and CITES did not respond to requests for comment. 

A few decisive steps must be taken in order to stop the declining numbers of both vaquita and totoaba. Rojas-Bracho agreed with local fishermen who said that the spillway on San Felipe’s beach — the main point of entry for buchero boats — must be closed, but that won’t stop the slaughter on its own. 

Due to their hefty price and the volatile nature of the totoaba fish maw market, the product has entered the realm of speculative investment in recent years. 

“Trafficking is a financial crime and it should be treated as such, because if you leave it to enforcement, that will not do the job,” said Rojas-Bracho. “There are millions and millions of dollars [involved] and ways to move the money without going through banks.”

He, fellow biologists and others rooting for the vaquita are clinging to a hope that grows more threadbare each afternoon as the buchero rigs swarm the beach and set out to sea. They find that hope in the toughness of a little marine mammal that barely measures five feet long. 

“Even with the few vaquitas we have left, the population could recover,” said Rojas-Bracho. “Vaquitas are resourceful animals and they just need to stop being killed.”

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Categories / Environment, International

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