How Mexican Crime Groups Profit From Illegal Fish Bladder Trade

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A new report has highlighted the need for authorities in Mexico to treat the trafficking of illegal fish bladders as an urgent security issue, assessing the factors fueling the illicit trade and providing recommendations for how authorities could do more to combat the environmentally harmful criminal activity.

A report by the non-profit organization C4ADS published this month has shed light on how organized crime groups have moved in on the illegal trade of fish bladders sourced from a protected species known as the totoaba fish.

Found only in the Gulf of California, the totoaba has for many years been harvested and trafficked via the United States to Asia, where its air bladder is highly sought after. The bladders are commonly used in soup, and are given as gifts or financial investments among elites in China and Hong Kong.

But the report suggests that trafficking patterns may be changing. The last seizure of totoaba bladders on the US border was made in 2013, suggesting either that the bladders are increasingly being shipped directly from Mexico, or that traffickers have developed better ways of avoiding detection.

In light of concerns for the species’ survival, and that of the vaquita, a type of porpoise often killed by the nets used for totoaba fishing, the practice was banned in the 1970s.

However, in the early 2010s the trafficking of totoaba bladders resurged, a phenomenon which the report asserts is not indicative of “opportunistic fishing by a small sub-set of local fishermen,” but rather a new form of sophisticated organized crime.

By weight, totoaba bladders are worth almost twice as much as cocaine, yet trafficking them carries fewer risks. Whereas convicted narcotics smugglers may face 10 to 25 years imprisonment, those found smuggling or fishing for totoaba until recently faced a maximum two-year sentence.

Mexican authorities have seized more than 4,000 totoaba bladders, worth some 300 million pesos (about $16.8 million), since 2000.

InSight Crime Analysis

Not only has the trade in totoaba bladders threatened the survival of both that species and the vaquita, it has also developed into a major security problem due to organized crime groups moving in on the trade.

According to the C4ADS report, the enterence of criminal networks into the business “signaled the arrival of a period of volatility and insecurity in the region, as criminal bosses jockeyed to control the totoaba trade in seaside towns and cities, and criminal fishermen began to use their law-abiding counterparts as a smokescreen for illegal activity.”

Organized crime groups “have solidified their hold on the totoaba trade in the Gulf, corrupting those officials who stand in their way (even those who proved resistant to the corrupting influence of narcotics traffickers), and frightening the local populations into silence,” the report adds.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Eco-Trafficking

The report suggests that authorities in Mexico as well as those in Asia and the United States have not placed sufficient emphasis on the illicit totoaba trade, and urges “quick and decisive enforcement action” to combat it. The authors suggest banning or more tightly regulating the types of fishing used to catch the totoaba, implementing programs aimed at providing totoaba fishermen with viable alternatives, and increasing the amount of law enforcement resources dedicated to the issue. 

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