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The Story of the Vaquita

Guest post by Rhiannon Croker on behalf of Save the Sea Panda - a recently launched campaign which raises awareness of the threat of extinction facing the Vaquita


Credit: Quartz

17:46 in the town of San Felipe off the Sea of Cortez, the vermillion sun begins to set, whilst tourists gather in the Plaza Maristacos to dine on shrimp tacos. Below, along one of the world’s largest tidal borders[i], local fisherman retreat to their homes, reminiscing over San Felipe’s heyday – days spent catching shrimp, shark, cabrilla, baqueta; a rich harvest. Natives now muse over stories shared by their parents and grandparents - stories of the post-World War II era where shark fishing ensured steady exports of shark fin to China, filling the Chinese population with ‘good fortune’ and perceptions of luxury.

On Wing Lok Street, Hong Kong, one of the major arteries for dried foods, five Totoaba maws (swim bladders) are observed lying adjacent to packets of goji berries. Meanwhile in Guangzhou, a father and son are arrested for smuggling 434 Totoaba maws via Vietnam. At Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport, a man is detained for smuggling 91 Totoaba maws into China from Mexico, and in Shanghai, two defendants are given 7 years in prison and fined 100,000 yuan for smuggling 351 Totoaba maws.[ii] Whispers of “money maw” saturate the liminal spaces between law and illegality here on the Chinese black market. The Totoaba swim bladder can fetch, on average, $50,000 each – more than double the annual salary[iii] of typical fishermen in San Felipe and more than the price of gold, gram for gram.[iv]

Credit: The Guardian

San Felipe, 23:05. A metropolis hosting hundreds of fish meet in a suspended city. Invisible barriers ensnare the critically endangered Totoaba in an expansive, covert operation. “Aquatic cocaine”. “Fake gold”. Totoaba maw, now more lucrative than drugs, dominates Mexico’s underground. A shootout between suspected poachers and Mexican marines injures three people following a confrontation over prohibited gillnets. Protesters gather to demand justice - some throw projectiles and trucks are enkindled, stabbing the stillness of sun-kissed San Felipe. Local fishermen mourn – dreaming for the day that they can catch ‘Chanos chanos’ to feed their families, without the imposed ‘criminal’ caption. Conflated with lawless poachers, economically impoverished fishermen fall victim to the feckless regulators of this ultramarine expanse. Meanwhile, traffickers hold their buoyant trade in banknotes.

Established yet secret networks operate adjacent to legitimate local trade. Funded by Mexican criminals, the poachers sell the maw to groups of well-connected Chinese traders and businessmen residing in Mexico. In the Chinese port city of Shantou, the murky metropolises metamorphose into money laundering and speculative investments. This global pandemic, not only starves communities of people and wildlife in the local town of San Felipe, but can be linked to international criminal networks involved in human and drug trafficking, with profits being used to fund criminal activity in the dark underbelly of Earth.

Meanwhile closer to home in the UK, sophisticated Albanian gangs have been linked to the trafficking of people.[v] As tourists flood the streets of Soho, transactions of women take place at 10:00am. In daylight. The Kings of cocaine, from the ports of Europe to the streets of London control Britain's £5 billion cocaine trade.[vi] Gascoigne estate, Barking.[vii] The Hellbanianz gang heralds its direct links with brutal Latin American cartels[viii] – waving Kalashnikov rifles on YouTube – tempting the disillusioned youth of Dagenham with dollar signs. Simultaneously, young, socio-economically deprived women from Eastern Europe buy into a better life…brothels. This is the 1980s Soho that everyone is nostalgic about. Allegedly. But what is the reality for women working in brothels in Britain today? Cocaine. Drugs and degradation. Dignity? No. Narcotics? Yes.


The true fact is, drugs and produce can be sold once. Humans can be sold time and time again. Once ‘aquatic cocaine’ has become antiquated in the town of San Felipe, what or even who will be next? What was once used to traffic drugs was implemented for the Totoaba. Fishermen were killed in the San Felipe shootout. The elusive Vaquita continues to be killed in the Totoaba trafficking.


Beaches are bleached with Vaquita blood; a by-catch of the Totoaba. Gillnets drown these porpoises, these pandas of the sea.

The last Vaquita might have just unknowingly visited the netted metropolis in the Sea of Cortez. Meanwhile, a fisherman has just sold 5,000/kg of maw to his first buyer for USD 3,500.[ix] Officials have just been ‘tipped-off’. A local fisherman has been shot. A Chinese illicit retailer has just earned USD 20,000 for 80,000/kg of maw.[x] A woman in San Felipe has just been drugged, whilst a man offers his ‘aquatic cocaine’ to his friends during a dinner party in Shantou.


There could be just one Vaquita porpoise left in the world. To save the Vaquita, we need destroy the trafficking networks behind the illegal trade of Totoaba. The supply of maw is finite, and once this ceases to fulfil demand, like China’s wild yellow croaker fish, what and who is more profitable than Mexico’s drugs? Humans.

Note: Facts and locations have been taken from reputable sources.

[i] n.d. San Felipe. [online] Available at: [ii] 2021. Illegal trade seizures: Totoaba - EIA. [online] Available at: [iii] Salary Expert. 2021. Salary Expert - Fisherman/Woman Salary San Felipe, Mexico. [online] Available at: [iv] Earth League International. 2021. The Totoaba Cartels & the extinction of the Vaquita - Operation Fake Gold. [online] Available at: [v] Sky News, 2018. Special report: Albania's human trafficking - Britain's hidden victims. [image] Available at: [vi] Curtis, J., 2019. Albanian gangs mock British justice system from jail. [online] Mail Online. Available at: [vii] Austin and Matthew Davis, J. and Davis, M., 2019. The drug dealers who 'own' rundown estate. [online] Available at: [viii] Townsend, M., 2019. Kings of cocaine: how the Albanian mafia seized control of the UK drugs trade. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [ix] Earth League International. n.d. The Totoaba Cartels & the extinction of the Vaquita - Operation Fake Gold. [online] Available at:,money%20laundering%20and%20human%20smuggling.&text=Three%20significant%20totoaba%20maw%20wholesalers%20were%20identified%20in%20China. [x] See ix

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