A new investigative report, published on Monday by the Los Angeles-based Elephant Action League (EAL) - an organization specialized in the fight against wildlife crime - revealed the global-spanning route of the trafficking in totoaba swim bladders, from Mexican seas up to Chinese markets.
Many Chinese believe the Totoaba swim bladders can cure various ailments which led to the development of illegal gillnet fishing in the Gulf of Mexico.
Its poaching puts the existence of vaquitas - a protected specie of porpoise - at risk as they are also being caught in the gillnets. Scientists estimate that fewer than 30 vaquitas remain today.
The covert investigation showed that the prized swim bladders are smuggled from Mexico into the U.S. and then to the Shantou area in China, usually through other Asian transit hubs, such as Thailand or Hong Kong.
Scientists and activists suspected that Mexican fishermen are paid by drug cartels to catch the animal and then use their well-organized criminal network to smuggle it to the US.
EAL’s Executive Director, Andrea Crosta explained that "given the dire circumstances surrounding vaquitas and the issues associated with the totoaba swim bladder trade in Mexico, including possible corruption and involvement of drug cartels, it is vital to fully research, investigate, and map all aspects of the totoaba supply chain, including the players that need to be neutralized."
According to the report, a kilogram of totoaba swim bladder costs in China over US$ 20,000 which is why Mexican and U.S. officials dubbed it "aquatic cocaine".
The investigation has also exposed the dichotomy between strict laws and lax enforcement, although there are strong efforts from the governments to strengthen it.
One Chinese trader told the EAL investigators that "when the government comes to check, they call and inform us earlier and wehide them when they come."
Meanwhile in Mexico, Oona Layolle, from Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, said that every night 20 illegal fishermen can be seen on the ship radar "and I know they only arrested seven people in the last two years."
A temporary ban on the use of gillnets in Mexico is expiring end of this month and the WWF conservation group has called for the Mexican government to make it permanent.