Quantcast

Vaquita Still Doomed Without Further Disruption of Totoaba Cartels

A vaquita photographed in Mexico in 2008. Paula Olson, NOAA

My organization, the Elephant Action League (EAL), spent 14 months investigating and infiltrating the illicit totoaba swim bladder supply chain, from Baja California in Mexico to Southern China. We released a public report on what we called Operation Fake Gold in July 2018. Since then, we have continued to submit intelligence to Mexican, U.S. and Chinese authorities in order to facilitate disruption of the totoaba supply chain. As a result, further review of the situation surrounding the totoaba trade and its effect on the extinction of the vaquita is warranted.


According to various sources in the Sea of Cortez, the price of raw totoaba swim bladder in Baja California is currently about $2,500 per bladder. This is down from highs of $5,000 to $8,000 per bladder in past years. Although this is a positive and promising development, a development that needs to continue and be supported, it is relatively unnoticed and undervalued by the media, other NGOs and government agencies currently trying to save the vaquita. A reduction in profit for the Totoaba Cartels is an important key to ending totoaba poaching in the Sea of Cortez.

A dead vaquitaElephant Action League

More importantly, according to our sources on the ground in Baja California, recent arrests of totoaba traffickers in China and pressure on the Chinese traders in Mexico are beginning to have an effect on the supply chain. Illegal fishermen in Baja have started complaining about a lack of income from the trade. The fishermen claim that the Chinese traders in Mexico are becoming fearful of the possibility of arrest and much less money is flowing to their shores. They are saying that it is not worth the effort and possible danger associated with setting new illegal gillnets — the same nets that kill vaquita and other important marine life — to poach totoaba.

This is the most important news for the vaquita in years and a result of — and proof that — intelligence activities and law enforcement can disrupt these criminal enterprises and significantly slow their illegal operations. Intelligence operations produce results.

This still from the documentary film 'Sea of Shadows' shows a Mexican navy soldier searching for poaching vessels in the Sea of Cortez. Richard Ladkani / Malaika Pictures

Unfortunately, as is the case with many other wildlife crime-related issues around the world, governments agencies, NGOs, and donors are disproportionately focused on the extremities of the supply chain — poaching and consumer awareness campaigns. There is very little focus and funding for the most important part of the problem, the trafficking networks and middlemen driving the trade. The only activities that can truly move the needle are investigation and intelligence collection like that performed during EAL's Operation Fake Gold, filmed as part of the feature documentary Sea of Shadows, which recently won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival.

A few large, U.S.-based NGOs, with the intent of forcing the Mexican government to save the vaquita, filed and won a lawsuit to ban imports of gillnet-caught seafood from Mexico. EAL publicly opposed this effort as being counterproductive. As expected, the ban has exacerbated the already complex and violent situation in Baja California. According to first-hand sources, the ban not only pushed the last few honest independent fishermen into poaching, but also created a parallel illegal shrimp trade run by local criminal organizations. The ban has done nothing but create more conflict on the shores of Baja California and more illegal fishing in the Sea of Cortez. It is now very hard to find a legal fishery in the area.

Fresh totoaba swim bladder seized in MexicoElephant Action League

Again, the most significant pieces of any illegal supply chain, the trafficking networks and middlemen, can only be tackled through intelligence operations, investigations and resulting law enforcement. Intelligence operations work to decrease the militarization of conservation and the violence that now pervades the Sea of Cortez and its shores. Without knowledge of the criminal players within a wildlife trafficking network, conservation is impossible, and the rule of law is irrelevant.

Totoaba on sale in ChinaElephant Action League

In Baja, among pervasive corruption, attacks on NGOs, widespread violence and still incredible profits for totoaba traffickers, only serious intelligence and undercover operations along the entire supply chain, including on the flow of money, create any hope for achieving an upper hand over the current chaos. Without these efforts aimed at direct disruption of the supply chain itself and the operations of the wildlife crime networks involved, there is absolutely no chance to win the war in the Sea of Cortez, save the vaquita, and save the rest of the region's extraordinary marine life.

Without a serious effort in terms of intelligence collection, investigation and law enforcement to thwart totoaba traffickers, we can say goodbye to the vaquita. The money spent to-date to protect the vaquita will have been wasted.

This still from the documentary film 'Sea of Shadows' shows a totoaba caught in a net. Richard Ladkani / Malaika Pictures

Andrea Crosta is executive director and co-founder of international wildlife trade watchdog group Elephant Action League.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Mizina / iStock / Getty Images

By Ryan Raman, MS, RD

Oats are widely regarded as one of the healthiest grains you can eat, as they're packed with many important vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

Read More Show Less
JPMorgan Chase building in New York City. Ben Sutherland / CC BY 2.0

By Sharon Kelly

A report published Wednesday names the banks that have played the biggest recent role in funding fossil fuel projects, finding that since 2016, immediately following the Paris agreement's adoption, 33 global banks have poured $1.9 trillion into financing climate-changing projects worldwide.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Sriram Madhusoodanan of Corporate Accountability speaking on conflict of interest demand of the People's Demands at a defining action launching the Demands at COP24. Corporate Accountability

By Patti Lynn

2018 was a groundbreaking year in the public conversation about climate change. Last February, The New York Times reported that a record percentage of Americans now believe that climate change is caused by humans, and there was a 20 percentage point rise in "the number of Americans who say they worry 'a great deal' about climate change."

Read More Show Less
The head of England's Environment Agency has urged people to stop watering their lawns as a climate-induced water shortage looms. Pexels

England faces an "existential threat" if it does not change how it manages its water, the head of the country's Environment Agency warned Tuesday.

Read More Show Less
Pexels

By Jessica Corbett

A new analysis revealed Tuesday that over the past two decades heat records across the U.S. have been broken twice as often as cold ones—underscoring experts' warnings about the increasingly dangerous consequences of failing to dramatically curb planet-warming emissions.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
A flock of parrots in Telegraph Hill, San Francisco. ~dgies / Flickr

By Madison Dapcevich

Ask any resident of San Francisco about the waterfront parrots, and they will surely tell you a story of red-faced conures squawking or dive-bombing between building peaks. Ask a team of researchers from the University of Georgia, however, and they will tell you of a mysterious string of neurological poisonings impacting the naturalized flock for decades.

Read More Show Less
Fire burns in the North Santiam State Recreational Area on March 19. Oregon Department of Forestry

An early-season wildfire near Lyons, Oregon burned 60 acres and forced dozens of homes to evacuate Tuesday evening, the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) said, as KTVZ reported.

The initial cause of the fire was not yet known, but it has been driven by the strong wind and jumped the North Santiam River, The Salem Statesman Journal reported. As of Tuesday night, it threatened around 35 homes and 30 buildings, and was 20 percent contained.

Read More Show Less
Edwin Hardeman is the plaintiff in the first U.S. federal trial claiming that Roundup causes cancer. NOAH BERGER / AFP / Getty Images

A second U.S. jury has ruled that Roundup causes cancer.

The unanimous verdict was announced Tuesday in San Francisco in the first federal case to be brought against Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, alleging that repeated use of the company's glyphosate-containing weedkiller caused the plaintiff's cancer. Seventy-year-old Edwin Hardeman of Santa Rosa, California said he used Roundup for almost 30 years on his properties before developing non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

The decision comes less than a year after a jury awarded $289 million to Bay-area groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson over similar claims. The amount was later reduced to $78 million.

"Today's verdict reinforces what another jury found last year, and what scientists with the state of California and the World Health Organization have concluded: Glyphosate causes cancer in people," Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook said in a statement. "As similar lawsuits mount, the evidence will grow that Roundup is not safe, and that the company has tried to cover it up."

Judge Vince Chhabria has split Hardeman's trial into two phases. The first, decided Tuesday, focused exclusively on whether or not Roundup use caused the plaintiff's cancer. The second, to begin Wednesday, will assess if Bayer is liable for damages.

"We are disappointed with the jury's initial decision, but we continue to believe firmly that the science confirms glyphosate-based herbicides do not cause cancer," Bayer spokesman Dan Childs said in a statement reported by The Guardian. "We are confident the evidence in phase two will show that Monsanto's conduct has been appropriate and the company should not be liable for Mr. Hardeman's cancer."

Some legal experts said that Chhabria's decision to split the trial was beneficial to Bayer, Reuters reported. The company had complained that the jury in Johnson's case had been distracted by the lawyers' claims that Monsanto had sought to mislead scientists and the public about Roundup's safety.

However, a remark made by Chhabria during the trial and reported by The Guardian was blatantly critical of the company.

"Although the evidence that Roundup causes cancer is quite equivocal, there is strong evidence from which a jury could conclude that Monsanto does not particularly care whether its product is in fact giving people cancer, focusing instead on manipulating public opinion and undermining anyone who raises genuine and legitimate concerns about the issue," he said.

Many regulatory bodies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have ruled that glyphosate is safe for humans, but the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer found it was "probably carcinogenic to humans" in 2015. A university study earlier this year found that glyphosate use increased cancer risk by as much as 41 percent.

Hardeman's lawyers Jennifer Moore and Aimee Wagstaff said they would now reveal Monsanto's efforts to mislead the public about the safety of its product.

"Now we can focus on the evidence that Monsanto has not taken a responsible, objective approach to the safety of Roundup," they wrote in a statement reported by The Guardian.

Hardeman's case is considered a "bellwether" trial for the more than 760 glyphosate cases Chhabria is hearing. In total, there are around 11,200 such lawsuits pending in the U.S., according to Reuters.

University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias told Reuters that Tuesday's decision showed that the verdict in Johnson's case was not "an aberration," and could possibly predict how future juries in the thousands of pending cases would respond.