He drove to the port of entry after midnight, transporting a cargo as lucrative and illegal as any cartel-produced drug. As it’s customary in border ports, the U.S. officer asked the driver if he had anything to declare. Song Shen Zhen, then 75, said no.
The load Zhen was trying to get into Calexico, California, that April in 2013 was tiny, even unremarkable when compared with the thousands of pounds of narcotics that officers habitually find hidden in cars coming from Mexico. Still, all 27 highly-priced fish swim bladders were concealed in the back seat, inside two plastic grocery bags, under both floor mats, according to court documents. The officer noticed the deformity in both floor mats, and upon closer inspection, found the swim bladders.
Zhen was sent to a secondary inspection area, where he once again said he had nothing to declare. This isn’t surprising. After all, he was in possession of four pounds of the critically endangered totoaba, a commodity dubbed “aquatic cocaine” due to the high price it fetches on the black market. In Asia, according to officials, experts, and court documents, where totoaba bladders are believed to carry medicinal properties, a bladder can be worth thousands of dollars.
One bladder found in Zhen’s car was seized for testing, according to court documents. Zhen got the rest back and was released, but only to be followed as the government built a case against him. Shortly after, agents moved in with a search warrant. Inside Zhen’s Calexico home, U.S. officials found what appeared to be a totoaba drying factory. Aside from packaging material, more than 200 totoaba swim bladders were laid in rows with fans blowing air over them. The totoaba bladders that got Zhen convicted in 2014 were valued at more than $350,000 in Mexico, $1.2 million in the United States and $3.6 million overseas. A federal judge gave Zhen a one year sentence and ordered him to pay $120,500 to Mexico.
But Zhen’s case is just one of many smuggling operations discovered in the United States involving the much desired totoaba, an endangered species endemic to northern Mexico. For years the United States has been used as a smuggling route to ship totoaba bladders to Asia, its biggest market. Oftentimes U.S. citizens of Asian descent are involved in this illegal trade, aided by Mexican nationals, a review of more than a dozen recent court cases shows.
This uncommon but profitable illegal trade continues despite law enforcement efforts, experts said, which means the totoaba population that has endured man-made pollution and environmental change is under stress on multiple fronts. Totoaba trade is causing a dual extinction, environmentalists say, because bycatch is affecting the vaquita porpoise, a critically endangered sea mammal that is nearly extinct.
The demise of a species
The totoaba is the largest species within the scaienidae family. It can grow to more than six feet in length, weigh more than 200 pounds, and live up to 25 years. It favors only the narrow northernmost inlet between Baja California and Mexico’s mainland. In the early 20th century, totoaba fisheries became the most important in the gulf, experts said.
A robust Chinese community in northern Mexico is thought to have tipped Asian communities in California about the totoaba. And soon after, exports to Asian markets, particularly China, began. The United States, experts said, is still a market and most importantly, a major route of the now illegal trade. This has happened as related scaienidae fish in Asia, like the Chinese bahaba, have been driven to near extinction, making the totoaba a desired alternative.
The totoaba dried bladder is believed to have medicinal purposes inspired by the totoaba’s longevity and its fertility, said Alfonso Blancafort, delegate at the Mexican Secretaría de Medio Ambiente, Recurso Naturales y la Pesca, an agency comparable to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “They believe that eating [totoaba] bladder soup improves health and fertility,” said Blancafort in Spanish while referring to some Asian communities.
Overfishing took hold in the Gulf of California, as man-made habitat degradation from Colorado River damming, and pollution from coast development encroached on the totoaba and other species, experts said. And by 1975, totoabas were so seldom found that Mexico banned its fishing. It is now protected under U.S. federal law, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which met last week in Geneva.
The illegal trade of totoaba was on the agenda. And it is known that Mexico used the week-long meeting to stress how illegal totoaba trade in Asia remains a major problem, despite international efforts. Documents also noted that over 900 adult specimens were caught illegally between 2014 and 2015, incurring a loss of millions of eggs.
A spike in illegal trade
Mexican officials told ThinkProgress that one kilo of totoaba can cost as much as $8,000 in the beaches of San Felipe, a gulf community 120 miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border. That price is much higher in Asia. “It’s been said that once in Singapore or Hong Kong, the kilo that was worth $8,000 can cost as much as $60,000,” said Blancafort.
In turn, China said in a letter submitted for the Geneva meeting that bycatch of juvenile totoaba and habitat degradation both appear to be the larger problems. China did acknowledge that illegal trade occurred, although it downplayed its presence noting that law enforcement is ongoing. “Supervision and inspection to main domestic markets will be continuously enhanced to eliminate [open] sale of the totoaba bladder,” the letter reads. Yet a study by the Environmental Investigation Agency released last week to coincide with the Geneva meeting found that a lucrative black market is still very much alive in China. “Our investigation suggests there is a lot of totoaba available in the Chinese market,” said Claire Perry, team leader of the EIA oceans campaign, to ThinkProgress.
She said high prices remain, despite a reported drop that Perry attributed to “a massive spike” in the illegal trade and totoaba availability. ”Traders are telling us that they are holding back on the stock that they have, they want the price to go up,” said Perry. “Once that happens, which inevitably it will, you can expect another surge in poaching in Mexico.”
Meanwhile, totoaba seizures in California ports of entry have declined, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data provided to ThinkProgress. In fiscal year 2013, there were 10 seizures of totoaba. The following year there were three, and last year the agency recorded a single smuggling attempt. Numbers detailing how many pounds of totoaba were confiscated in recent years wasn’t provided, but a CBP spokeswoman said via email that while these figures show a decline in totoaba seizures, that’s not necessarily indicative of a decrease in the overall illegal trade in totoaba.
The possibility that a spike in illegal totoaba trade has indeed happened is bad news not only for the totoaba, but also for the vaquita porpoise, another critically endangered animal endemic to the Gulf of California. The vaquita is a common bycatch of totoaba fishing practices, a collateral damage that’s put it close to extinction. The vaquita, by all accounts, is the most endangered mammal in the world.
No recent reliable figures on totoaba or the vaquita exist, said Blancafort, the Mexican official. It’s believed, however, that fewer than 100 vaquitas remain. In response, Mexico halted all gillnet fishing in the northern part of the Gulf of California in early 2014, Blancafort said, as the government seeks data, pursues new fishing technology that may spare vaquitas, and ramps up enforcement of illegal fishing. This gillnet fishing ban is meant to last two years, although it could be extended.
Blancafort added that a recent program to reproduce totoabas in laboratories for subsequent reintroduction into natural environments has been successful. Nearly 25,000 juvenile totoabas have been released in the past three years, he said. “The goal is to repopulate the gulf.”
The missing effort
But researchers and Mexican officials told ThinkProgress that protecting the future of the vaquita requires extra effort. All interviewed moreover noted that totoaba trade in Asia needs to be curtailed for the vaquita to survive. Environmental problems like pollution or river diversion issues exist, researchers said, but the totoaba and the vaquita have been able to withstand this encroachment.
“The totoaba, the vaquita and the gulf corvine were able to adapt,” said Gustavo Hinojosa, a research fellow for the Mexican Consejo Nacional de Ciencias y Tecnologia, to ThinkProgress. “The main problem is fishing,” he said in Spanish, and warned that when one species disappears, the fishing industry looks for alternatives elsewhere to fulfill the demand.
For her part, Perry praised the Mexican compensation program that is addressing illegal fishing in the area. She added that the United States and Mexico have indeed stepped up their efforts against the illegal trade of totoaba, which could in turn mean a relief to the vaquita.
However, she questioned Chinese enforcement efforts needed to limit demand, pointing to the EIA report that shows how openly traders sell totoabas online, and how few seizures take place in Hong Kong and China. “The one thing … the missing piece of the puzzle is China,” she said.