Story highlights

Totoaba fish bladders are prized for their supposed benefits to health and beauty

Smugglers in Mexico are threatening the species and another fish often caught in the nets

CNN  — 

Jonathan Garcia Pereda snapped a photo, the contraband glowing white in his smartphone. Mexican federal police had stopped a 28-year-old man from San Felipe at a checkpoint, discovering black plastic bags balled up in the tires. It appeared to be another familiar bust to the Mexican police, until they cut open the bags.

One hundred twenty-one fish swim bladders lay before Garcia Pereda on the concrete floor, most of them white, some with shades of pink. The smell of fish guts was overwhelming, a stench Garcia Pereda never grew accustomed to, even as he went from bust after bust of the illegal smuggling. This was a huge haul of “aquatic cocaine”: 39 kilos of totoaba fish swim bladders, with a Hong Kong street value of $750,000. Not quite as big as a recent bust, thought Garcia Pereda, where they’d stopped 600 bladders from getting across the U.S.-Mexico border, flowing eventually to China.

These seized fish bladders are worth thousands of dollars on the black market.

These swim bladders were large, all from totoaba bass at least 30 years old. Garcia Pereda, a representative from PROFEPA, Mexico’s version of the Environmental Protection Agency, knew this bust was barely a dent in the multibillion-dollar international black market, robbing Mexico of its endangered species.

Garcia Pereda leaned down to snap another picture, wondering how Chinese buyers could pay so much for an irrelevant part of a fish. Most of all, he wondered even with all the efforts by the Mexican government, the Mexican navy and international environmental activists, if they could stop a seemingly insatiable and bizarre appetite for the dying species’ bladder.

The market

“It’s the best of the best. It makes one more beautiful,” the shop owner said in Mandarin, holding up a picture of dried totoaba bladder. “You can oil it or put it in a stew,” he continued. The middle-age seafood shop owner pointed to the picture and said it would cost about $100,000 U.S.

The totoaba’s swim bladder is the priciest dried fish item in Sheung Wan, a neighborhood in Hong Kong. In a cluster of shops on a street commonly known to tourists and locals as Dried Seafood Street, exotic dried fare sit in giant tubs and glass jars, promising a variety of cures to a number of health ailments.

Shops have entire sections displaying dozens of types of fish bladders, ranging from $100 U.S. to thousands of dollars. Chinese culture has long believed fish bladder is rich in collagen, improving skin texture and maintaining youthful-looking skin.

The totoaba fish bladder is distinguished by two tentacles.

Few items are as desired as the totoaba bladder, what one shopkeeper called the “Mercedes-Benz” of dried fish, referring to its cost. The high price comes from the tototaba’s scarcity. It exists only in the most northernmost section of the Sea of Cortez in Mexico, in a quiet reserve called the Gulf of California. The totoaba is the only fish bladder on the market that has two unusual-looking tentacles that stretch the length of the bladder, giving it a unique and otherworldly appearance.

The totoaba is also endangered, placed on international endangered species lists since the 1970s. Commercial fishing first took its toll on the species, and now a new threat ravages the remaining fish: Chinese demand.

Hong Kong bans the sale of totoaba, because it’s an endangered species. Perhaps the Hong Kong shop owner holding the picture was thinking of the law: Two weeks ago, he said he could sell totoaba. But on this second visit, he quoted the $100,000 price and urged us to shop elsewhere.

At another store, a merchant pledged totoaba will help ease achy joints and soft tissues. The recommended way to ingest it? “Soup.” The only way to buy it? A lot of money.

The fish bladders are smuggled through North America toward Asia.

The source

The Russian-made helicopter lifted off the ground of the Mexican naval base at San Felipe, a fishing village in Mexico’s Baja California. Aboard the helicopter were nearly a dozen sailors, some armed with semiautomatic rifles. The chopper made its way from dusty flatlands to the pristine blue waters of the Sea of Cortez. Just a few clicks north of San Felipe, the Colorado River meets the Gulf of California, where freshwater flows into the sea.

Helicopters are used to spot evidence of smugglers in the Gulf of California.

It’s here, 5,019 square miles of the gulf, that is home to the totoaba’s nursery and spawning habitat. The Mexican military flies twice a day over this nursery, patrolling for poachers. Mexico’s government declared this area and 400 miles of coastline a protected habitat and off-limits to all fishing.

But money is a more potent draw than the fear of arrest, with poachers making as much money from the bladders as they do from cocaine. That pound for pound profit is why observers dub the totoaba bladder “aquatic cocaine.”

Shortly after taking off, the pilot spots a giant net in the protected coastline. It’s is an illegal totoaba net, hidden until poachers can drop the 2 kilometer-long net in the gulf to trap totoaba.

Nine sailors, heaving and sweating, pull the heavy net aboard the chopper. The captain of the mission lifts a corner of the net. “The holes are 12 inches wide,” he said. “It’s used specifically to fish totoaba illegally. The head gets stuck, and it suffocates. It’s dangerous to the totoaba, but it’s also the main killer of the vaquita.”

A totoaba that died caught in a smuggler's net.

The vaquita is another, more critically endangered marine animal. It looks like a small dolphin, its mouth curling up in a semi-permanent smile. Like for the totoaba, the Gulf of California is its breeding ground and nursery. And like the totoaba, this gulf is the only place in the world where it exists. It also has the extreme misfortune of being the same size as the totoaba: Its head fits perfectly in the illegal nets. The vaquita has no financial value to the poachers, but as by-catch, it is now on the verge of extinction.

On April 13, NOAA Fisheries, along with an international group of scientists, released a report to Mexico’s minister of the environment and natural resources saying that only 60 vaquitas remain in the Gulf of California. The scientists say that number represents a decline of more than 92% since 1997. At this pace, the report says, the vaquita species will be extinct in five years.

The scientists urged Mexico’s government to continue with direct action against the poachers so both the totoaba and vaquita survive. It is a call, for now, that the government is hearing.

In the air, the navy has one airplane and one helicopter launching twice a day.

On the ground, six drug-sniffing dogs, once trained to locate cocaine, now sit at three checkpoints leading out of the protected area, inspecting 250 cars and 300 people a day.

On the water, six boats and a larger naval vessel patrol the protected area of the Gulf of California, both at day and at night, when poachers are most active. All this is part of a national effort costing the government millions of dollars.

The effort may seem massive, but the lure of the black market carries a financial potency that’s proving difficult to stop.

The fishermen

Jorge Garcia sat on the back of his truck, selling fish filets and shrimp to tourists wandering the boardwalk in San Felipe. He looked out at the water, disgusted that his two boats are not doing what Garcia was raised to do: fish big game like totoaba.

“We’re being punished,” he said. “Young fishermen from out of town are coming in, fishing illegally in the water, making tons of money.”

Garcia, his skin tanned, thickened and coarsely lined from decades on fishing boats, motioned to himself sitting on the truck. “But I can’t fish.”

Garica said he’s participating in a government program that is paying him to not fish in the protected vaquita and totoaba sanctuary. The government promised him $3,100 U.S. a month, but he says the actual payout was closer to $2,000 U.S. One totoaba bladder, Garcia reminded us, would be double the government’s monthly incentive to not fish.

“I understand what the government is doing,” said Garica. “But they’re not stopping it. The illegal fishing happens at night. There’s too much money involved.”

The fish bladders are thought to promote health and beauty when eaten.

Garcia was baffled when he learned the swim bladders were being used as an anti-aging product in Hong Kong, eaten as a soup. Garcia, who grew up eating totoaba, said, “If it really worked for beauty, I should be beautiful by now. Instead, look at me.”

The Mexican government knows it has an uphill climb stopping the illegal fishing.

PROFEPA’s Garcia Pereda, having been a part of numerous totoaba busts, watched as the sailors pulled up an illegal net in the vaquita and totoaba sanctuary. The naval officer told Garcia Pereda they’re still pulling up nine nets a day. Trapped in this net was a totoaba, probably 20 years old. It had not been dead long; its swim bladder was still intact.

“We watch this place 24 hours a day, and it’s sad to see that this still happens despite all our efforts,” he said.

The fishermen pull the bladders, roll them into small packages and move them north. “Like ants,” Garcia Pereda said. “They move them in small quantities, bit by bit. They’re smuggled. They’re put on commercial flights and commercial shipping companies where they make their way into Shanghai, Hong Kong, often through the United States or Japan.”

A San Felipe fisherman has no ties to China, that’s clear, said Garcia Pereda. But he wouldn’t detail whether the transnational crime originates with the Mexican cartels. “It’s obvious that to get this product abroad, we’re dealing with some sort of organized groups. We just can’t say if it’s specifically organized crime.”

Garcia Pereda knows from his experience in the Mexican government that there’s one rule in dealing with illegal contraband: “If there’s a market for it, there will always be those who will disobey the law.”

The most trafficked mammal you’ve never heard of

The environmentalists

“Ready, go!” Dan Villa, his arms stretched straight above his head, released his grip on the drone against the night sky.

“Heading to the target,” said Roy Sasano, flying the drone out a mile and a half from the Sea Shepherd vessel.

“Anything yet?” quizzed Villa, peering over Sasano’s shoulder at the night-vision camera from the drone. Water stretched from either side of the camera’s frame. Villa is the campaign leader of Operation Milagro, Spanish for “miracle,” the latest mission for environmental activist group Sea Shepherd.

The Sea Shepherd is an environmental group's ship fighting fish bladder smuggling.

Sea Shepherd is best known globally for its direct action against Japan’s whaling in the Antarctic, engaging the whaling fleet boldly at sea. It’s a level of direct confrontation rarely seen on the environmental activist stage, but just one of the group’s many campaigns around the world.

In the Gulf of California, Sea Shepherd is working in conjunction with the Mexican government to halt the poaching, often calling the navy for help in arresting poachers or pulling up giant nets.

Dan Villa aboard the Sea Shepherd.

“We see pangas here,” Villa said, referring to the boats the fishermen use. “They cast their nets illegally where there’s no fishing. We motor towards them, and since they’re doing illegal activities, they always flee.” The crew aboard the Sea Shepherd vessel, dubbed the Farley Mowat, marks the spot where the drone spots the fishermen and return at daybreak to retrieve any net left behind.

“I see something,” said Sasano, the drone getting closer to the target.

Sasano, a former member of the Canadian navy, slowed the drone. Get too close, and the fishermen bolt before the drone’s camera can capture and record what they’re doing.

The fishermen spot the drone, appear to drop something over the side of the boat and speed off.

The crew marked the location and continued the dark hunt. The team spotted six more illegal fishing boats, all which zoomed away.

“I think it’s a fight,” said Katja Walther, a deckhand on the vessel. “I think it’s a battle that we’re fighting. It’s just one of those lies that people consume. We’re seeing a decline of species here and it’s tragic.”

Biologist Benjamin Sawicki, also a Sea Shepherd crew member, is one of the few humans who has seen a vaquita. He was perched on the top of the Farley Mowat when he saw a vaquita’s dorsal fin slowly surface.

“They’re so few of them, people’s attitudes now locally and sometimes in the conservation world are that there are not enough animals worth saving. We’re not looking at just protecting the vaquita or the totoaba. If the whole system doesn’t work, we’re a part of the whole system. Eventually it affects us as well.”

The reality of the poaching for the Sea Shepherd crew is palpable when they spot a frequent sight: dead totoaba floating. The Farley Mowat crew pulled up a partially decomposed totoaba. It had been cut open.

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    “On the inside here right behind near the spine is its swim bladder,” said crew member Adam Conniss. “You can see there’s no swim bladder.” Poachers tossed the carcass back into the sea, the fish without any value after the removal of the swim bladder.

    It’s quietly infuriating to Villa, who has been with Sea Shepherd for more than 10 years, on campaigns around the world. “Every species that we lose is a blow to the fragile ecosystem that sustains life on this planet,” said Villa. “Every other breath you take comes from the oceans. And if the oceans die, we die.”

    CNN’s Yuli Yang and Stella Ko contributed to this report.