In a busy street in southern China, a merchant treasures a product as extravagant as clandestine: dissected bladders of totoaba. The frenzy over this delicacy, known as ‘cocaine de mar’, threatens marine species of the Mexican Gulf of California, sparking a feverish battle between authorities and traffickers.
The ‘sea cocaine’ is not a drug but its illegal trade generates tens of thousands of dollars on the black market of China, while the totoaba nets also catch the vaquita marina – the smallest porpoise in the world -, leading to the extinction to these two endemic species of the Gulf of California. Thus, those cold waters of the Mexican northwest have become a war camp: environmentalist boats lurk with sneakers to poachers, while Mexican Navy ships and helicopters ambush armed traffickers.
In a desperate attempt to save the less than 30 marine vaquitas that remain, the authorities banned almost all types of fishing since 2015 in an area of more than 1,200 km2 in the Gulf, including the waters that flow into San Felipe.
This fishing village of Baja California, where 70% of the economy depends on fishing, has become the collateral victim of the battle for ‘sea cocaine’. “Four years ago we had a lot of fishing income, now, unfortunately, they are leaving us on the street. They want to do it to San Felipe like a ghost, they want to disappear “, laments Omar Solis, a shrimp fisherman who had to buy a catamaran sailboat to convert to the tourism sector.
This 42-year-old man says that banning all nets – and not just totoaberas – is an exaggerated measure and that the fishermen’s shortage can force them to capture totoaba, whose bladder costs about $ 4,000 fresh from the sea. “They are pushing us to do that even if we do not want to,” he admits in front of the calm waters of San Felipe. «If you do not have money, what can you do?»
Waving a black flag with a skull, a camouflaged boat of the environmental organization Sea Shepherd patrol day and night with sonars and radars in search of illegal networks and clandestine pangas in the Gulf. Three years ago, the American NGO deployed ships to save the vaquita. But since February, police and soldiers armed with rifles had to join their crew, after masked poachers fired on the organization’s drones.
The penalties for the ‘totoaberos’ reach up to nine years in prison, and since last year the authorities intervene their phones and finances to investigate them for possible organized crime. A sailor deployed in the area assures that the poachers “go out to sea armed and they shoot each other”.
The traffickers disembowel the totoabas captured in the boat, return the bodies to the sea and disguise the bladders in their boots or in secret compartments of the panga. Then, they are sent to cities bordering the United States, to dissect them and then “they make the packing to send them to China, Hong Kong”, explains Joel González, from the Federal Office of Environmental Protection (Profepa).
From April 2015 to January 2018, 704 bladders were seized in Mexico and 304 corpses of totoaba were found in furtive nets, according to Profepa. A fisherman from San Felipe who requested anonymity for security says that “most of the totoaberos are armed.” “It’s the same mafia, the same networks of corruption and trafficking routes” for bladders and drugs.
Meanwhile, in China, ‘sea cocaine’ is jealously hidden, far from the sideboards, in markets of traditional medicine and dehydrated seafood in the southern province of Guangdong. On a busy street in Guangzhou, the regional capital, a merchant shows her clandestine treasure to an undercover AFP reporter. On a traditional wooden table, the discreet merchant offers tea and spreads several dehydrated totoaba bladders: one of low quality costs 20,000 yuan ($ 3,160) and for the best asks for 130,000 yuan ($ 20,500). In total, there are eight bladders, worth $ 80,000.
According to connoisseurs, bladders taste better when they are old, even for a decade. Prepared in soup, it is believed that they relieve arthritis or the discomfort of pregnancy and rejuvenate the skin. The bladder is so treasured in China that people display it in their homes. If you buy one, “we can give you a case lined with golden silk and a ribbon,” offers the seller.
On the San Felipe waterfront, fisherman entrepreneur and leader Sunshine Rodríguez went on a hunger strike for 10 days, demanding from the government scientific evidence that all the networks – and not just the totoaberas – affect the vaquita marina. He did not get an answer
According to some scientists, like Manuel Galindo, the vaquita can only be trapped in the thick totoaberas nets, and in addition, the main cause of its extinction would be the deterioration of its habitat. The vaquita lives right at the mouth of the Colorado River because it needs waters with low levels of salinity, low temperatures and rich in food, explains Galindo, a retired oceanologist who worked 37 years at the Autonomous University of Baja California. But these conditions “no longer exist” because of the diversion of the river to dams in the United States, he says.
When the environmentalists are told that “they are killing 4,000 families of fishermen with children, they have literally answered me: ‘It is the price to pay for killing the vaquita marina’,” Rodríguez says indignantly. Thus, the fishermen of San Felipe have had to travel more than 80 kilometres to the south to work and live. «How far do they want to send us?», Asks Jesús Rendón, who travels more than an hour from San Felipe to a deserted beach.
Many fishermen cannot make the daily trip from San Felipe and a new home was improvised in Campo Serena, a dusty beach without drinking water or electric service. There, some 200 fishermen, some with women and children, settled in mobile homes and brought containers filled with ice to preserve the sticks, corvinas and sawfish that they extract from the sea. “One has to flee here, going through cold and hardship,” laments Maria de la Paz Alcántar, a 60-year-old woman who prepares food for fishermen, while two little girls run around to play in the nets piled in the sand.