Illegal Soup and Aquatic Cocaine: The Strange, Tragic Tale Of the Vaquita Porpoise

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vaquita porpoise in the water
About as good a photo as you’ll find of a live vaquita porpoise, Phocoena sinus

In the shallow waters of the northern end of the Gulf of California, there dwells a little cow that is in some serious trouble. The vaquita, literally translated from Spanish as “little cow”, is a pretty cute little porpoise, if you’re one of the very few who gets to see one alive. They’re dark grey, around 1.5 meters or 5 feet long, with a pretty chunky body for a porpoise. Their head is round with a blunt face, unlike the long beaks of their more familiar cousin, the bottlenose dolphin. And they’ve got dark patches around their eyes and mouth that make them look a little bit like panda bears. They seem to have never been very numerous, and they only live in a pretty small patch of ocean, but they have everything they need nonetheless. Plenty of fish to eat, clean water, and no real predators to worry about. Better still, even humans don’t hunt them, not for food or for any other reason. So what’s the problem?

Soup. Illegal fish bladder soup.

See, humans don’t hunt vaquitas, but there’s another animal in the Gulf of California that they do hunt. The totoaba is a fish that’s also about 5 feet or 1.5 meters long. It’s been illegal to harvest this fish for decades, but until recently, enforcement by the Mexican government has been pretty lax. The favored method of fishing for totoaba is to set out gillnets. These nets can be up to two kilometers long… you read that right, two kilometers… and are designed to ensnare any fish of a certain size that encounters them. Now, these fishermen don’t want to catch vaquita porpoises, since there’s no market for them. But since the totoaba is about the same size and shape as a vaquita, these gillnets work equally well on both of them. And unlike the fish, which can survive for a while in these nets, vaquita have gotta breathe air just like any other mammal. They get caught in these nets and drown long before the fishermen ever discover them.

So, super shitty. This rare porpoise is getting wiped out simply by accident. But what does that have to do with illegal soup? Well, that’s what the totoaba is for. See, while the meat from these big fish is perfectly edible, that’s not why people are breaking Mexican and international law to poach them. These fishermen don’t actually care about the flesh of the totoaba any more than they do the vaquita. That’s not what they’re after. What they’re after is the swim bladder. Now, I know, you hear the word “bladder” and you think of that thing that got filled up while you were chugging Diet Coke and watching a Vin Diesel movie in the theater, a thousand years ago when you could still do things like go to the movie theater, and then you’d have to rush out to the restroom to go empty it, and at first you were worried about finding a good time to do it but then you realized, it was a Vin Diesel movie, it really didn’t matter which part you missed.

2 Fast 2 Urinate

Not that kind of bladder, though. Most fish have this swim bladder, which instead of being a stretchy bag that fills up with urine, is a stretchy bag that fills up with gas. It’s how fish control their buoyancy, or how well they float or sink in the water column. There’s really not much to a swim bladder, it’s just a mass of thin tissue. Why the hell are people breaking the law just to cut a swim bladder out of an endangered fish and toss the rest of it back in the water? Money, of course. Lots of money. The fishermen can sell a totoaba swim bladder to smugglers for thousands of US dollars each. In fact, these swim bladders, also called “maws” in the illegal fish organ trade, are worth more per gram than gold or cocaine. Sometimes people refer to these maws as “aquatic cocaine” or “cocaine of the sea”.

As an example, a smuggler was caught in 2013 bringing totoaba bladders in to California. He had 214 swim bladders drying out in a house, and the total value of these dried fish sacks was estimated at around $3.6 million. The smell inside that house, however, was priceless. Anyway, imagine you’re a fisherman living in a little village in Mexico. You’re just barely scraping by with legal fishing. But, if you can catch just one of these totoabas, you’ve just earned enough to live on for a few months. So, yeah. Local fishermen who otherwise make little income are going after these guys, hard. So are professional poachers that come in to the area just for the totoaba. So are the fucking Mexican drug cartels, if you can believe that. And if these guys accidentally kill the occasional vaquita porpoise, well, that’s just the cost of doing business.

And yes, the reason these maws or fish bladders are so expensive is because there’s a huge demand for them. For soup. Fish bladder soup. Really. If you’re confused as to why anybody would pay out the ass for some kind of weird soup… well, so am I, really. But the answer is this: Traditional Chinese medicine.

dried animal and plant bits in a Chinese traditional medicine shop
Traditional Chinese medicine storefront, selling dried… I kind of don’t want to know what, actually
Photo by Carl Flisch, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Now if you’ve just rolled your eyes all the way out the back of your head, then you’ve probably heard about this problem before. Don’t get me wrong. Every culture has their weird medical traditions that don’t make sense. Go to a drug store or supermarket in the United States, and you’ll find shelves and shelves filled with bottles of “herbal supplements”, many of which have never been scientifically proven to do squat for you. The difference is, in Chinese traditional medicine, they take this shit to some crazy extremes. If it were just about plants that you could easily farm, that’d be one thing. But this tradition also calls for a variety of strange, obscure animal parts, which all too often come from endangered species. Some of which are endangered BECAUSE of their demand in traditional Chinese medicine. Rhino horn. Tiger penis. And yes, totoaba swim bladders. Maws or swim bladders are cooked in to a maw soup, which is supposed to improve the skin and help with pregnancy complications. There is zero evidence for this, and no reason to think there’s anything about a totoaba swim bladder that’s different from almost any other kind of fish. But only the totoaba will do, for whatever reason.

But, that’s weird, right? Why would traditional Chinese medicine call for an animal part from Mexico? Good question. The answer is, it doesn’t actually. Totoaba is actually just a substitute ingredient. What’s really called for is the swim bladder of another fish, the Chinese bahaba, also known as the giant yellow croaker. This is another big fish, 6 feet or 2 meters long, in the same family as the totoaba. It’s found off the Chinese coast, and so it makes a little more sense that it would be used in a Chinese tradition. But if that’s the fish that’s actually got the special bladder, why go after the totoaba? Because the demand for bahaba swim bladders was so great that it eventually drove THAT fish to the brink of extinction. When they got to the point where poachers could only find a couple of bahabas a year, somehow it was decided that totoabas would do just as well.

So. A relatively small number of folks in China and Hong Kong believe that soup made from the swim bladder of the bahaba croaker is a special, valuable medicine. They value it so much that the species was very nearly wiped out in order to keep up with the demand. They then turned to the totoaba. The totoaba is now an endangered species because of this, and oh, guess what? The vaquita porpoise is on the brink of extinction, too, just because it happens to live in the same area and is the perfect size to get caught in the gillnets. A fatal coincidence. If it lived in the Gulf of Mexico instead of the Gulf of California, it might be doing just fine. Instead we have a chain reaction of unsustainable harvests and random chance, knocking out one species after another. It’s like a game of whack-a-mole, except instead of moles, it’s entire species, and instead of just knocking them back into their holes, you’re murdering them, and instead of winning paper tickets when you’re done, you get sadness and some shitty soup. It’s the worst Chuck E. Cheese ever. And that’s saying something.

“Fish, Fish, Vaquita” makes for a crap children’s game

If that wasn’t crazy enough, it turns out that the financial crisis of 2008 actually made everything worse. Back then, and in fact any time there’s been concern about the economy, some people liked to hoard gold in the hopes that it would increase in value, or at least hold its value better than actual money. You saw advertisements all the time, urging people to buy gold, or to sell their gold to pawn shops. Well, in the more affluent circles in China, wealthy people started hoarding totoaba maws for the same reason. They were rare, expensive, and actually more valuable than gold. So in a way it made sense to buy them as an investment. Demand rose significantly. Owning one or eating the soup became valued as a status symbol as much as it was desired for any perceived health benefits. Today, wealthy Chinese actually give totoaba swim bladders as gifts to impress people. It’s like owning a Rolex wrist watch, except it’s stinkier and isn’t easily replaced by a mobile phone. Plus you can eat it. So, really, a little better than a Rolex, I guess.

small fishing vessel
Even legal fishing can hurt the vaquita porpoise
Photo by Dr. Karl-Heinz Hochhaus, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Back to the vaquita porpoise. Remember them? It’s honestly a pretty grim situation now. Based on genetic analysis, there were probably never many of them to begin with. We aren’t sure, because they’re so small, shy, and reclusive that they weren’t even identified scientifically until 1958. And that was just based on some skulls. Biologists didn’t get their hands on a live one until the 1980’s. Our first good estimate of the vaquita population is from 1997, when we figured there were around 567 individuals. That’s a pretty damned small population to begin with, especially for a species that only gives birth to one offspring every other year. The next time biologists checked in on them wasn’t until 2008. That time, they estimated there were about 245 vaquita in existence. That’s a 57% drop in population, in only 11 years. That’s scary. Really scary. Sadly, it only gets worse. By 2015, their numbers had dropped to 60. A year later, 30. Today, in early 2021, there’s thought to be only 10 or so in existence. Ten. It’s possible for a species to come back from that kind of setback… but it’s definitely an emergency, and nobody knows how bad the inevitable problems with inbreeding and low genetic diversity will be.

So what can be done to save the vaquita? Obviously if we could convince people that fish bladders weren’t medicine, that would go a long ways towards solving the problem. But these medicinal traditions are still hanging around, despite decades of criticism for the effect they’ve had on endangered species. The sale of totoaba and bahaba swim bladders is illegal in China, as well as being prohibited by international treaty, but enforcement has been lax to say the very least. Smuggling them in to China is said to be fairly easy, and once there, shop keepers sell them right out in the open. There are reports that, while government inspectors do come around to these shops to check that they’re not selling any contraband, they do them the courtesy of telling them ahead of time that they’re coming. Of course, then, there’s never anything illegal on display when they show up.

I’m shocked, shocked to find that there’s illegal animal parts trafficking going on in here

So discouraging the sale or the demand in China seems to be a dead end. In recent years, the Chinese government has actually started to stop totoaba smuggling at the border, making a number of high profile arrests and confiscating shipments of bladders worth an obscene amount of money. Is that making a dent in it? We really don’t know. The Chinese government doesn’t exactly have a great track record on this sort of thing, and they’re not very transparent, so it’s hard to be sure. But, some arrests is probably better than none, and we can always hope they continue to make an honest effort. There’s little that other nations can do to compel them if they don’t, however.

Barely visible vaquita, fishing vessels in background
You can just barely see a vaquita in the foreground, with commercial fishing vessels looming on the horizon.

So, what about stopping the poaching in Mexico? Here we find a thorny mess. Remember those fishermen, hoping to catch just one totoaba so they can support their family for the entire season? Yeah. How do you tell those guys that they can’t do that anymore? That they have to work their asses off instead just to stay poor? How do you even explain to them that they should care about the vaquita? Worse… even just normal legal fishing can catch vaquita as bycatch (like the Mola mola which I described in a previous entry). Gillnets are used to catch smaller fish and shrimp in the Gulf of California, not just the big totoaba, and while these nets are a little different than the totoaba nets, and less dangerous for the vaquita, they still kill them sometimes. So you’ve also got to convince these legit fishermen to get rid of their old nets and buy different gear that’s safer for the vaquita. The newer gear works just as well as the gillnets, but the fishermen don’t always believe it. They prefer the same nets they’ve always used. The Mexican government has tried a number of tactics, including paying fishermen NOT to fish, or buying fishing gear for them, as well as gillnet bans and banning fishing altogether in the core of the vaquita habitat.

But these efforts have had mixed results. Some fishermen have gamed the system, catching legal species with illegal gillnets, but reporting it as being caught with the newer, legal gear. Enforcement by the Mexican government has been uneven or absent. Locals who poach seem to have formed almost a mafia system among themselves, so that fishermen who want to cooperate with the authorities feel threatened by their neighbors, and keep their heads down instead. Organized, professional totoaba poachers operate at night to evade detection. And did I mention the fucking drug cartels have gotten involved? Efforts by the Mexican navy to stop poachers and illegal gillnets has even resulted in violence, with people getting shot by the military, and port structures being burned down by angry fishermen in retaliation. You could seriously do a remake of Breaking Bad, only with fish bladders instead of meth, it’s that crazy.

What about captive breeding, you ask? Yeah, they thought of that. Not nearly soon enough, but they tried. A few years back, when the vaquita population was thought to be around 30, biologists captured two female vaquitas and attempted to care for them. Whales, dolphins, and porpoises (if you want to be a nerd, the word for all three is cetaceans) are notoriously difficult to keep successfully in captivity, and vaquita proved to be worse than most. They simply did not thrive in their captive conditions, no matter what was done for them, and so before long, they were released. One didn’t survive the trip back to the ocean, sadly. After that loss, it was determined we couldn’t afford to risk trying to keep any more vaquitas in captivity. Their only hope is going to be in the open ocean.

What now, little cow?

With only 10 or so vaquita left, the only real option is a total ban on any fishing activity in their range, and this is what Mexico has finally decided to do, as of September 2020. Partly due to pressure from a US ban on imported Mexican shrimp, a “Zero Tolerance Area” has been established where the last remaining vaquita are thought to live. Within this refuge, they have pledged to use air, sea, and satellite surveillance, 24 hours a day, to stop illegal fishing activities. Whether they live up to this promise, and how effective it will be, remains to be seen.

Maybe there could be another solution, though. We could try to convince people that they should make soup out of something we actually want to kill off. Maybe let folks know that invasive Burmese pythons in the Florida Everglades are a better substitute for the bahaba croaker than the totoaba. Or maybe exotic cane toads in Australia? Oooh, how about dried poacher guts? We could come up with a weird name for them though, so it sounded less like cannibalism. Poachabi?

“Try some delicious poachabi soup, it will do wonders for your… umm… unborn child. Yes. Nothing could go wrong. Have you ever considered going to a regular doctor, though? Just asking, no reason. I’m sure the poachabi probably will be fine, just fine. Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a very strange sequel to Breaking Bad on and I never miss an episode, it’s super weird.”

If you want to help preserve the vaquita porpoise, consider donating to:

Sea Shepherd, which sends folks out into the Gulf of California to retrieve illegal gillnets and confront poachers.
VaquitaCPR, which runs visual and acoustic monitoring for the vaquita, as well as gillnet removal and the promotion of sustainable local fishing practices.

Saving the vaquita marina and the urgency of this fall
Marine Mammal Commission
NOAA Fisheries

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