Endemic to the Sea of Cortez, in Mexico’s upper Gulf of California, the vaquita is a species of porpoise that has been pushed to the brink of extinction.
The rapid decline in this species is due to illegal hunting. While the vaquita is not a target for poachers, it is about the same size as the highly valued and endangered tapa fish. When caught in a gillnet, the vaquita sinks within minutes as a bycatch.
Widely called the “cocaine of the sea,” Totoaba is more valuable than cocaine in Mexico. Its swim bladder is used in traditional Chinese medicine and can fetch between $30,000 and $100,000 per kilogram on the black market.
Poachers who carry out illegal trawling from Toba. credit: Earth Association International
The Mexican Navy confirmed this month that it had captured members of the Tobaba smuggling gang.
Andrea Crusta is the founder of Earth League International and has worked covertly in the Sea of Cortez investigating and learning about these underground networks and supply chains.
“It led to the dismantling of one of six different Tawah cartels,” Crusta told SBS Dateline.
“There are five similar cartels operating in Mexico actively trading in Totoaba as we speak, so it is important to continue this effort to investigate these cartels, especially the international connection, and how they smuggle and sell these fish to Asia.”
Andrea Crosta holding a dry swim bladder. credit: Earth Association International
He says environmental crime needs to be treated as more than just a conservation problem.
“All of these networks are involved in many other crimes that are not environmental crimes,” he said.
“We’re looking at the convergence of environmental crime…and money laundering, people smuggling and drug trafficking are usually the exact same people.”
“end of species”
Within the Vaquita Conservation Reserve, all commercial hunting is prohibited, but for the NGOs it is an ongoing battle to keep hunters within the law.
In 2020, one fisherman died and another was seriously injured after a fishing boat collided with a larger vessel belonging to conservation group Sea Shepherd that was feeding on gillnets.
“It’s a never-ending job,” Crusta said.
“I’m not sure we’re on time to save the vaquitas, because there are less than 10 vaquitas left.
“We are witnessing in real time the end of species.”
All of these networks are involved in many other crimes that are not environmental crimes.
Since 2015, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has removed thousands of fishing nets from the vaquita.
Pritam Singh is the Chairman and CEO of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, USA. The Vaquita Conservation Crew recently visited the Gulf of California.
“For many years, Sea Shepherd has worked with the government of Mexico and many other nonprofit organizations, and the strategy has been for the fishermen to go out and leave the nets there with buoys and we will chase them and pull them up,” Pritam Singh
“So the fishermen stopped leaving their nets out there and now they’re just fishing with the nets from their boats, so you can see exactly what they’re doing.”
Pritam Singh pulls a fishing net in the vaquita’s habitat. credit: Sea guard.
This year, the organization is using a new vessel specifically designed to stay in the Vaquita Protection Refuge 24 hours a day. The goal is to keep the net out of the water.
“We are able to see the fishermen as they go out fishing and if they enter the protection zone we report them to the Navy.
“The nets don’t reach the water and they don’t stay in the water because we are chasing them.
“We can’t quit – we have to be present all the time, it’s like being a bouncer.”
For conservation groups, it’s serious business. Singh says Sea Shepherd ships have been attacked countless times.
“We’ve had it all, shooting at us, it’s wild stuff, but our crews keep doing it.”
The Sea Shepherd crew works with radars to protect the vaquita. credit: Kadija Ege / Sea Shepherd
The hunting season in Tataba begins every year in November and ends in March. These months represent the most dangerous time for the vaqueta.
“These fish are seen as just floating, swimming dollar signals,” Singh told SBS Dateline.
“There is an end to everything related to industrial fishing, if poaching continues it will eventually kill everything.
“But there is hope – scientists say there are fewer than 10 vaquitas left but they can come back…and the government of Mexico is really showing and has changed this year in terms of their follow-up.”
In a recent press conference, the Mexican Navy commander said that the government has installed radar equipment around the Vaquita bunker.
Since 2019, Mexican officials have conducted a series of raids and arrested numerous members of the transnational criminal organizations driving the illegal totoaba trade.