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The Angler Gangsters Getting Rich Off Fish Bladders — The Cocaine of the Sea

In China, they can fetch up to 30 grand each

Oscar Parra Aispuro, aka “El Parra,” is an alleged hitman for the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico. The cartel, however, has fallen onto hard times recently after their big man, El Chapo, was arrested and extradited to the U.S. Since then, it’s been replaced in Baja cities like Tijuana by the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, a younger, more vicious gang led by a man called “El Mencho.” All of which left a guy like El Parra looking for new ways to score some quick cash. His solution? Smuggling fish, specifically the totoaba fish.

The cartels call it the “Cocaine of the Sea,” primarily because of how prized it is in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. But not the whole fish — it’s the totoaba’s bladder, which is typically dried and cured, that’s so valuable. Old folk remedies recommend keeping it in the house for emergencies as it’s believed to possess all sorts of life-saving qualities. (Primarily, it’s a key ingredient in a medicinal soup used as a pain reliever, or to treat anemia and kidney diseases.) None of this, of course, is proven by science, but that doesn’t matter to the people who eagerly pay $30,000 for a single bladder. For them, belief is enough to justify the cost.

Like any good criminal enterprise, though, the collateral damage to bring an illicit product to market is heavy. In this case, it’s at the expense of the vaquita, the smallest porpoise in the world, which is now critically endangered. In fact, it’s estimated that there are less than 15 left in the world, and they’re expected to go fully extinct by 2021. That’s because they’re being killed by Baja fishermen while they drag the sea on the hunt for the lucrative totoaba. This is all highly illegal since the totoaba itself has been listed as an endangered species in the U.S. since 1979, and Mexico also bans fishing the nearly-extinct species. (To make matters worse, the gillnets the fishermen use catch and kill not just vaquitas, but sharks, whales, sea turtles and dolphins as well.)

Like El Parra, the fishermen, mostly from a tiny town called San Felipe, are also desperate. Due to environmental degradation in the Sea of Cortez, they’re seeing smaller and smaller catches. Essentially then, they’re ripe to be plucked by the drug cartels. It helps, too, that they get $1,500 or so per totoaba bladder. It’s really all they’re looking for when they catch a totoaba; they dump the rest of the carcass of the gutted fish over the side of the boat — an attempt to dispose of any evidence of their crimes.

Meanwhile, far from the sea, holed-up in border cities, Chinese illicit fish dealers secretly wait for deliveries from San Felipe. They happily purchase the illegally-sourced totoaba bladders for roughly $3,500 to $5,000 each. Chinese cartels are the primary smugglers of the dried fish bladders into the U.S. since, benefitting from prejudice by American officials, they’re far less likely to be stopped at the U.S.-Mexico border than their Mexican partners in crime.

Once the fish are successfully smuggled into the country, they’re prepared for the long flight to Asia. They don’t usually take a direct flight. Instead they fly to Japan, Korea or Taiwan, perhaps even Vietnam, and they tend to use the same routes as drug smugglers. The last stop is a region of China that used to be known as Canton. It’s home to Hong Kong, a hub of international wealth and the black market for rare, exotic and illegal fish. All through the surrounding Guangdong province, there’s enough of a demand for totoaba bladders that they can fetch the aforementioned $30,000 price tag in local shops.

For the most part, the Chinese government allows the practice to continue. So while we know that the Chinese government often acts with impunity to squash any behavior it rules unacceptable, the fish-bladder traders and dealers know that the authorities are happy to look the other way or warn them when they’re coming — despite the harsh laws and penalties in place. As one fish-bladder trader explained to investigators from the Elephant Action League (EAL), L.A.-based wildlife crime fighters, “Because [when] the government comes to check, they call and inform us earlier, and we will hide them when they come.”

The totoaba bladders are mostly purchased by the super-wealthy of the Guangdong province, as well as by those eager to own such a rare status symbol. Essentially, it’s a medicinal artifact that conjures up the dignity of the old ways. It’s expensive nostalgia for China’s new money elite and their aging parents.

This is where things get complicated. Namely, who’s to say that the Chinese customers don’t have a right to enjoy their customary ways? It’s not dissimilar from the poachers in African nations who threaten the extinction of the white rhino or who regularly make headlines for elephant slaughter. The poachers — as disgusting as what they do may be — are actors in a long chain of events. They cannot be separated from the buyers of elephant tusks, or the shops that traffic in rhino horn.

In many ways, wildlife crimes are no different than international drug or sex trafficking rings. Borders are a laughable limit. The smugglers and the supply chains are international. Just like with illegal drugs, all the customers, dealers, traders and suppliers are equally complicit. The supply chain requires each link. But this is also the good news: By exposing how vast a network is, small organizations like EAL can shame powerful governments into action, and these links can be broken.

Until then, though, the market for illegal animal products is only get more lucrative (it already stands at close to $23 billion). A fact the smugglers are exploiting. Case in point: Back in 2013, Song Shen Zhen, a 73-year old totoaba smuggler, was caught at the U.S.-Mexico border in Calexico. When he was stopped, Border Patrol discovered 27 fish bladders hidden under the floor mats of the backseat of his car. They didn’t know what to make of his secret fish guts, but they figured something was up. They gave him back all but one of his fish bladders, and released him to travel into America. However, as U.S. Customs Agent Billy Whitford put it, “The officer thought something was fishy.” And so, Border Patrol followed him.

Zhen led them to a rental house in Calexico. When they came back with a search warrant, agents found a cache of more than 200 totoaba bladders. They were being prepared to be shipped to China and Hong Kong. If that illegal stash of dried fish bladders made it to market, it was “estimated to have a total street value in China of more than $3.6 million.” More importantly, the stash represented the latest business tactic for these black-market fish dealers — hoarding the dried totoaba bladders. Because the species is endangered and may soon collapse, prices will go even higher — likely way higher.

The Chinese black market has seen this happen before. Once upon a time there was a fish called the giant yellow croaker. Its bladder was equally prized by Chinese customers, which led to overfishing and a near total collapse of the species. So much so that now if you manage to catch one, a giant yellow croaker’s bladder is worth upwards of a half million dollars.

Yes, half a mill for dried fish guts.

* * * * *

In August 2017, China, Mexico and the U.S. held a trilateral international summit on illegal fishing in the Sea of Cortez. Its chief aim was to combat threats to the vaquitas and totoabas, and to deal with the Chinese and Mexican black markets. However, as if to indicate how little it cared about the meeting, the U.S. didn’t send anyone from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife or National Marine Fisheries services, the agencies that enforce the Endangered Species Act. Not exactly a rousing show of respect for the proceedings.

To focus so much international attention and energy just to save 15 porpoises and prohibit the sale of some stupid-expensive fish guts may sound ridiculous — until, that is, you realize just how much money is involved, how much violence is involved, how much corruption is involved and how these same criminal methods, relationships and trade routes can be used for all sorts of illicit trade.

In other words, this fight, like with all the other campaigns to prevent international crime, forces us to confront the truth that borders only matter to politicians, their scared constituents and mapmakers. Criminals take advantage of that fiction of safety and security and belief in invisible lines. Saving vaquitas then can also shine a light on how to do that — while saving an endangered species at the same time.

Also, the fix isn’t as complicated as it might seem.

A gillnet is nicknamed the “wall of death” due its lethality. It’s 10 to 15 feet tall. It’s attached to floaters on the surface and has weights on the bottom to hold it in a vertical position in the ocean’s currents. It’s like a huge volleyball net made of clear filaments so that fish can’t see it. The holes vary in size depending on the intended catch. Marine life encounters this invisible wall of death and swims into a hole just big enough for their head. When they realize they’ve swum into something and try to back out or turn, they get caught by the gills. Hence, the name.

At one time, these nets could be 40 miles long. Now, they’re typically one to two miles long, but even at that size, a gillnet still kills plenty of marine life. They’re considered the most effective — or devastating, depending on your perspective — method of fishing.

So why don’t we ban and/or replace gillnets?

Because if we did, the already-struggling fishing boats would see far greater reductions in catches — making these desperate men even more desperate. However, if you want to save porpoises, there’s something called a pinger. It’s a device that emits a high-pitched sound that fish can’t hear, but dolphins, whales and vaquitas can. As such, using them can reduce bycatch by 70 to 90 percent. Even better, locals could be hired to ensure the pingers are attached to gillnets and operational. That protects jobs, rather than loses them with a ban on all imported fish from the Baja region (another oft-discussed “solution”), one that punishes local fishermen and encourages police to replace the cartel as the new force crushing down on them.

Yet, that’s exactly what an international trade court did this summer, when it “ordered the Trump administration […] to ban all seafood harvested with gillnets in Mexico’s northern Gulf of California.” The Trump administration had been against the ban, mostly because it opposes any bans of international business, on general principle, no matter how corrupt those business may be.

Meanwhile, last month, a Mexican judge ordered that El Parra, the alleged former cartel hitman who had been arrested as a fish-smuggling kingpin, be released from prison. He cited the fact the Baja California police authorities lied about the manner of El Parra’s arrest. But one day after being released, El Parra was re-arrested. This time the charge was murder of a Mexican marine, a crime that’s believed to be linked to the totoaba fish black market.

Once again, the profits were too great to resist.