KGTV — (KGTV) — A couple of hours south of the border, beneath the surface of the Sea of Cortez is a war for a fish referred to as the "cocaine of the sea."
It’s so valuable, trafficking of the fish is controlled by organized crime. In 2017, ABC 10News' Kimberly Hunt reported how cartels were poaching this illegal fish called the Totoaba, and in the process, wiping out other sea life, and bringing the world’s smallest whale, the Vaquita, to the brink of extinction.
The Totoaba’s sea-bladder is cut out of the fish and smuggled to China where it is considered a delicacy with medicinal qualities.
Poachers in Mexico get about $4-5 thousand for each Totoaba, and in China, we are told by conservationists that the bladders go for $40-70 thousand apiece.
Fishermen in the Sea of Cortez illegally fish for Totoaba by throwing out huge fishnets. When the nets are brought up, other sea life is caught and dies as by-catch. Among them is the critically endangered Vaquita porpoise.
Despite efforts for years by U.S. NGOs, the U.S government, and the Mexican government, the traffickers continue to fish, traffic into China, and make millions of dollars a year.
Today there are fewer than 10 Vaquita left on earth. And, just last week the vote of an international committee dealt a major blow to the imperiled Vaquita.
Last week, an international committee gave the green light for commercial farming and trade in captive-bred Totoaba, and in doing so, may have condemned the last few remaining Vaquita porpoises to extinction.
CITES, the committee on international trade in endangered species voted to allow a Mexican aqua farming company to trade farmed Totoaba, despite efforts by the U.S and Israel to reject the application.
This now opens the international Totoaba trade for the first time in almost 50 years.
Andrea Crosta, the founder and Executive Director of Earth League International, who has fought the illegal fishing of Totoaba for 7 years, tells me this not only complicates enforcement of poached Totoaba in the Sea of Cortez, but it will also increase demand for the wild fish and seals the fate of the Vaquita.
"This is the final nail on the coffin of the Vaquita," said Crosta. "Only 8-10 are left in the wild. The very last Vaquitas on earth. And apparently, the Mexican government and the fishing industry in Mexico really want the Vaquita extinct, it would be easier on everyone."
During this past year, the Mexican Government also lifted the fishing ban in the Vaquita refuge. The Sea Shepherd currently has two vessels in the gulf, fighting fishermen on the water.
Crosta says Earth League International is the only organization in the field, on land, trying to fight Totoaba poaching by targeting the traffickers themselves.
While his organization is gathering information and providing it to law enforcement, Crosta says traffickers continue to make millions. Calling the certain fate of the Vaquita an epic failure of conservation.
"We put more than $100,000,000 over 12 years. The U.S. government, the Mexican government, big NGOs, a lot of money, and we could not save the rarest marine mammal in the world that lives 5-6 hours driving from Los Angeles."
"The Vaquita doesn’t live in the middle of nowhere, the jungle of Congo, it’s around the corner. I’m in L.A, you’re in San Diego and yet we couldn’t save it, we couldn’t save the Vaquita," said Crosta.
The crew of the Sea Shepherd maintains some hope even still. It reported seeing a calf among the 7 or 8 adults counted in the fall. A baby, while facing hostile home waters, provides hope.
If you want to make your voice heard, we're providing emails and phone numbers below to agencies that can affect the laws and enforcement of the Vaquita Refuge.
Here's the link to Earth League International:
See the list below for action you can take to help the Vaquita:
1. CONTACT Mexican and Chinese government authorities and demand an end to the illegal totoaba trade that’s accelerating the vaquita’s demise:
Presidente Andrés Manuel López Obrador
Residencia oficial de Los Pinos, Molino del Rey s/n,
Col. San Miguel Chapultepec, Distrito Federal. C.P. 11850
Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources – E-mail: email@example.com
Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the United States of America
3505 International Place, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20008 U.S.A.
2. DONATE to Earth League International and Operation Fake Gold, at https://earthleagueinternational.org/donate/. Our team of covert investigators and crime analysts may put an end to the totoaba cartels and international traffickers responsible for the decline of vaquitas and the destruction of the Gulf of California.
3. SPREAD AWARENESS. Share this video of Dr. Jane Goodall as she joins ELI and others who are fighting to save the vaquita.
Click here for more information on helping the Vaquita and to watch a message from Dr. Jane Goodall.