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ABC 10News Anchor Kimberly Hunt looks into fight to save vaquita

Marine biologists estimate there are only around 11 to 13 vaquita left on the planet.
Posted at 5:45 PM, Nov 03, 2023

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — The global fight to save the world’s most endangered marine mammal, the vaquita, has crossed the border into San Diego. 10News Anchor Kimberly Hunt has reported on the efforts to save the small porpoise from extinction for the last three years. The vaquita are not the target of illegal fishermen, but they are the victims as fishermen drop illegal gillnets in an effort to catch a highly prized fish, just for its bladder.

Now, several people believed to be involved in trafficking the high-value fish bladders, have been prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Diego.

The vaquita, a small, shy porpoise, is found in only one place on Earth: the Sea of Cortez, which is a few hours south of San Diego. As governments and marine biologists from all over the world attempt to save the last few remaining vaquita, a lot of attention has gone into stopping illegal fishing in Baja California. But recently, federal prosecutors have tried to cut off another tendril of the organized crime racket: The traffickers buying and selling the illegal commodity, which affects the vaquita's chances of survival.

Law enforcement is getting help from an unexpected place.

Dubbed the "cocaine of the sea," the swim bladder of a fish called the totoaba is so profitable that traffickers smuggle the delicacy on the black market, from the waters of the upper Gulf of Mexico to open-air markets in China, where despite being outlawed, undercover cameras prove they're plentiful and expensive because the sea bladders are believed to have medicinal qualities.

They're selling there for anywhere from $35,000 to $70,000 per bladder.

"The same people and the same networks are also involved in other serious crime, like money laundering, human smuggling, and basically all kinds of cooperation collaboration with the Mexican organized crime, because the totoaba business is very profitable," says Andrea Crosta, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Earth League International.

Crosta launched Operation Fake Gold in 2017. His team infiltrates wildlife trafficking rings and works with law enforcement agencies to bring them down. They've identified 14 totoaba syndicates and shared intelligence about 40 traffickers.

"But most of these big traffickers are actually businessmen. I'm talking about the non-Mexican organized crime," Crosta says. "The businessman and they do a lot of other things, they overlap constantly legal with the illegal, so they make a lot of money from other legal businesses: import, export, restaurants, hotels, supermarkets."

Two people were arrested near the border in San Diego's South Bay in May for the trafficking. Zifeng "Gabriel" Wu, a Chinese citizen who lives in Chula Vista, was indicted on conspiracy and other charges related to buying, selling, and importing totoaba bladders and other endangered marine animals.

Chin Wang, also known as Summer Wang, was also charged for selling 23 totoaba swim bladders that were illegally imported into the U.S. from Mexico for almost $250,000. In court documents, she admitted to offering to sell $1 million worth of bladders.

"I think that these two people who got arrested in San Diego are probably among the top three, four, most important totoaba traffickers out there," Crosta says.

In September, both Wu and Wang pleaded guilty in federal court and will be sentenced in December.

"We collect information from a lot of sources and informants all over the places. So what they're telling us is that the remaining traffickers in Mexico are now scared because of these arrests," Crosta says.

Interrupting the trafficking of totoaba is critical to the survival of the world's smallest marine mammal, the vaquita. The vaquita are caught in the illegal gillnets used to catch the totoaba. Both fish are protected species, which bans their international trade.

But smuggling remains a major problem.

Now, the vaquita teeter on the brink of extinction. The last official count by marine biologists estimates there are 11 to 13 vaquita remaining on Earth.

"We want you out of nature crime. And so they're, they're placing less orders of the TSA. And this means less illegal gill nets in the Sea of Cortez, and this means less poaching and less marine creatures killed in the sea," Crosta says.

Crosta's efforts with Earth League International have raised the cost of doing business. Traffickers, who were once ghosts, may finally realize they have something to fear.

Financing the illegal trade of totoaba keeps the gill nets in the area of the Sea of Cortez known as the vaquita refuge. Crosta and his group are in a race against time: Smugglers must face justice for their pursuit of blood money before the gill nets wipe out an entire species.

"They're killing machines that are killing whales and sharks and turtles and seabirds. So, it's not just about the vaquita. It's important to get rid of these traffickers because they're literally killing marine life in the Sea of Cortez in Baja, California," he says.