On March 27, Mexico was sanctioned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a global treaty that regulates wildlife, which considered that the «country’s action plan is not adequate» .
In traditional Chinese medicine, the swim bladder of the totoaba is considered a source of health and collagen, and is believed to slow aging. It costs thousands of dollars and there is a great demand for this species, the capture of which is prohibited in Mexico due to intense overfishing. This makes totoaba bladders one of the most valuable products on the black market of illegal wildlife trafficking, known as «the cocaine of the sea.»
Mexico has had little success in combating the illegal totoaba trade. From 2016 to 2022, a total of 16 people have been sentenced for this activity, according to data from the Federal Attorney General’s Office for Environmental Protection, obtained from 34 information requests made by Noticias Telemundo in collaboration with the Latin American Center for Investigative Journalism (CLIP).
«Mexico had to present a compliance action plan and not just an action plan,» Ivonne Higuero, CITES Secretary General, in an interview with Noticias Telemundo.
“These networks are killing many species,” Higuero said. “I have seen photos showing octopuses, turtles, shells and everything. That Sea of Cortez, which is a beauty, which is the aquarium of the world, we cannot spoil it. We have a biodiversity crisis right now.”
Additionally, experts such as Enríquez and CITES have pointed out an inconsistency in government figures regarding the seizure of illegally caught totoaba fish, making enforcement difficult to track. For example, from 2016 to 2022, Enríquez’s group has studied 2,456 totoaba bladders seized by authorities, three times the official number of government seizures, which was 743 during that time, according to data provided by the government to Telemundo News.
On April 13, the Mexican government announced that it had approved another plan to protect the totoaba and the vaquita, thus lifting the sanction that prohibited the country from selling any of the regulated wildlife species to the other 183 signatory nations of the treaty.
The Center for Biological Diversity, along with two other environmental organizations, sued the US Department of the Interior in December 2022 to trigger sanctions and an embargo on seafood imports from Mexico.
In response, the Ministry of the Interior announced on April 7 that it will determine whether Mexico has breached its obligations to protect the vaquita and totoaba.
If it determines that Mexico has not complied with conservation programs, the Biden administration could embargo the importation of wild seafood from Mexico, including shrimp and fish. An announcement is expected on June 3.
Lots of seizures, few convictions
According to official data cited by Traffic, a global environmental organization, between 2015 and 2019 alone, Hong Kong imported a total of 16,899 tons of fish bladders of different species, including totoaba.
The low number of convictions and convictions in Mexico contrasts with the huge seizures made by authorities in several countries, including Mexico: since 2013, 26,000 to 30,000 totoaba bladders have been seized that have made the journey from Baja California to China and, in Many cases pass through the United States, according to a database developed by Enríquez at the Autonomous University of Baja California and research by environmental NGOs such as Earth League International and Traffic, among others.
In March 2022, Brookings Institution scholar Vanda Felbab-Brown published a report, «China-linked poaching and wildlife trafficking in Mexico,» in which he analyzed the problem and delved into the connections between species trafficking and organized crime groups.
“I think one of the most important conclusions of my report was that we found the presence of drug traffickers in the coastal areas, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco Cartel, and we found that they want to control each and every one of the fisheries, both legal as illegal, and all stages from processing to export,” Felbab-Brown said in an interview.
In 2018, the Earth League International published Operation Fake Gold, a 14-month investigation that tracked totoaba trafficking in Mexico. In that operation, the organization collected information on eight trafficking networks with a total of 1,420 people, all Chinese but with multiple local ties.
‘Mexico alone’ cannot control illegal traffic
Mexico’s new plan to combat illegal totoaba fishing did not necessarily propose innovative solutions, according to activists and experts.
The Mexican proposal focuses on trying to prevent the entry of vessels into the Zero Tolerance Zone, an area created in 2020 that is off-limits to fishing; the government said the goal is to keep it free of gillnets.
“It’s very general, it doesn’t talk about any detail, it doesn’t propose anything new,” said Olivera of the Center for Biological Diversity. “The reality is that today people continue to fish with prohibited nets, mainly shrimp. It’s not just about totoaba, right now it’s curvina season and they’re also using gillnets. So everything stays on paper.»
The Mexican government also pledged to monitor authorized boat loading and unloading sites, something CITES has noted: the international body said its inspectors spent an hour on the boardwalk in San Felipe, a fishing village in Baja California, and they saw that “at least 15 ships went to sea without authorization and without inspection”.
Three officials from Mexico who attended the CITES meeting in November but requested anonymity because they are not authorized to comment publicly said the pressure has been intense to eradicate gillnetting and illegal fishing in the Sea of Cortez and other nearby areas. .
Many argue that the 177,000 square kilometers (68,340 square miles) that make up the protected area are unreachable by a single government due to the enormous geopolitical complexity formed by criminal cartels, Chinese buyers, Mexican fishermen and the failures of protection systems.
“This is not an exclusive issue for us,” said Blanca Alicia Mendoza Vera, head of the Federal Attorney for Environmental Protection, in an interview with Noticias Telemundo. “As there is demand from Asian countries, they must do what is necessary so that their laws cut off that demand. The same is true of transit countries, which are now also destinations, such as the United States. The claim is always against us, but Mexico alone cannot control totoaba trafficking.»
He stressed that international meetings demand that Mexico allocate significant economic resources to combat illegal fishing and conserve species such as the vaquita and the totoaba.
“We don’t have a budget that goes on forever, and all of this is done at the expense of our taxpayers. It is time to begin to recognize in the international arena that the protection of species is everyone’s responsibility, wherever we are and, above all, to help control criminal activities,” said Mendoza Vera.
CITES’ Higuero agrees on the complexity of the methods and criminal networks involved in totoaba trafficking.
“This cannot be fought by a single country. Mexico has to make its efforts at the national level and apply the law, but in general this can only be fought at the international level and the demand must be reduced, ”he said. “We have programs to reduce demand, China also has them and they must enforce the laws because there are many ports and the borders are porous between Asian countries. They are criminals that often nobody can catch and for that international cooperation is needed”.
seeing an improvement
However, it is not all bad ecological news and geopolitical challenges in the Sea of Cortez.
Enríquez, the researcher at the Autonomous University of Baja California, developed a database to analyze the totoaba population and found some encouraging results.
“We have found that there is a lot of genetic variability in the totoaba population. It has been overexploited and continues to be caught illegally, as evidenced by incidents in Mexico and other countries, but fortunately there is varying evidence that it is at least not critically endangered,” he said.