03/01/2016 The Guardian
In 2013, Song Shen Zhen, a 75-year-old resident of Calexico, California, was attempting to re-enter the United States from Mexico when border patrol noticed a strange lump beneath the floor mats of his Dodge Attitude. The plastic bags beneath the mats contained not cocaine, but another valuable product: 27 swim bladders from the totoaba, a critically endangered fish whose air bladders, a Chinese delicacy with alleged medicinal value, fetch up to $20,000 apiece. Agents tracked Zhen to his house, where they discovered a makeshift factory containing another 214 bladders. Altogether, Zhen’s contraband was worth an estimated $3.6 million.
The robust black market is grim news for totoaba — but it’s an even greater catastrophe for vaquita, a diminutive porpoise that dwells solely in the northernmost reaches of the Gulf of California, the narrow body of water that extends between the Baja Peninsula and mainland Mexico. Since 1997, around 80 percent of the world’s vaquitas have perished as bycatch, many in gill nets operated by illegal totoaba fishermen.