First it was moving marijuana and cocaine across the border. Then, it was human smuggling. Now, it appears Mexico’s drug cartels are getting involved in the lucrative – and slightly peculiar – business of trafficking the bladders of exotic fish to Asia.
News of this fishy business began surfacing in June following the murder of Samuel Gallardo Castro, alias "El Samy," – the leader of a Mexican organized crime group in the Sonoran town of El Golfo de Santa Clara. A man confessed to local authorities that he killed the drug boss because Gallardo owed him $1 million for a shipment of bladders from the totoaba fish.
The man was released because authorities doubted his “mental faculties,” but his statement was not the first time the murky business of the underground fish bladder trade has made headlines in Mexico.
The totoaba’s large swim bladder, which controls its buoyancy, is a delicacy in China, where it’s placed in soup and can cost as much as $25,000 a bowl. An investigation by the online news site Mexicali Digital revealed that the bladders can fetch anywhere from $7,000 to $14,000 a piece in the black market. The totoaba bladders are normally taken from the Gulf of California and shipped to the United States before making their way across the Pacific Ocean to various Asian ports.
The totoaba is related to the drum fish and can grow up to seven feet in length, weigh 200 pounds and live for around 25 years. Tototaba are listed as an endangered species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act since 1979 and, because the species is federally protected in both the U.S. and Mexico, it is illegal to take, possess, transport or sell Totoaba.
Besides the U.S. classification, the fish has been labelled an endangered species by a number of groups due to both poaching for its bladder and also the diversion of water from the Colorado River within the United States – where they spawn – which has left little or no fresh water to reach the delta and greatly altered the environment in the delta and the salinity of the upper Sea of Cortez.
Mexican authorities in 2013 dismantled a group of smugglers trafficking totoaba in the Sea of Cortez, seizing parts of the fish worth between $35,000 and $60,000 and arresting four people. Last April, U.S. federal authorities filed criminal charges against seven individuals for their role in plundering and smuggling Totoaba bladders.
"Many species, including the Totoaba, are teetering on the brink of extinction due to poaching to supply the illegal wildlife trade. While we may never know how many Totoaba bladders were harvested illegally, such disregard for the protections that were put in place to benefit this endangered species could have a disastrous effect on the fish population,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Deputy Chief Edward Grace said in a press release.
Marine life poaching has become a major issue throughout Latin America with the security website InSight Crime reporting instances of shark fin poachers working in Costa Rica, dolphins illegally slaughtered in Peru, and, besides the fish bladders, sea horses and sea cucumbers are also hunted in Mexico.