AN EXAMPLE OF OUR UNDERCOVER FIELD OPERATIONS.
MORE OPERATIONS AND REPORTS HERE: https://earthleagueinternational.org/operations-reports/
OPERATION FAKE GOLD - Illegal fishing in Mexico and totoaba trafficking to China
The Totoaba Supply Chain – From Mexico’s Totoaba Cartels to China’s Totoaba Maw Wholesalers - An Illegal Trade Killing the Vaquita, the rarest whale in the world.
Earth League International is proud to release a new public report detailing another expansive, covert operation. In response to the dire circumstances facing the vaquita as by-catch of the illegal totoaba trade, Earth League International commenced an investigation and intelligence gathering operation called Operation Fake Gold. After 14 months of work on two continents, our organization has mapped the entire illicit totoaba maw (swim bladder) supply chain. The investigation took our Wildlife Crime Division from the Baja California peninsula to Southern China’s Guangdong Province.
The vaquita, the world’s smallest and most endangered porpoise, is nearly extinct due to China’s demand for the swim bladders, or ‘maws,’ from a giant Mexican fish called the totoaba. By-catch from the Illegal fishing of totoabas with the use of gillnets is killing vaquitas. In fact, the use of gillnets for illegal totoaba fishing is endangering the entire marine ecosystem of the Upper Gulf of California. The International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA) estimated that, as of November 2016, no more than 30 vaquitas remained. Analysis of 2017 acoustic monitoring data showed that the decline of the vaquita has continued unabated.
The retail price of totoaba maw on the black Chinese market has been recently quoted up to USD 46 per gram in China. The price of gold is currently hovering around USD 40 per gram. This is why totoaba maw can be considered ‘fake gold’ and why the totoaba fish became swimming gold for Mexico’s fishermen. A fisherman in San Felipe, Mexico, can earn more in one night catching a few totoabas than they may otherwise earn in a year.
Through Operation Fake Gold, Earth League International has identified what can only be described as “Totoaba Cartels” in Mexico. The totoaba cartels specialize in the poaching and trafficking of totoaba swim bladders – the bottom half of the supply chain. The chain starts in the villages of San Felipe and Santa Clara along the Gulf of California coast, but moves quickly to central smuggling operations in cities like Tijuana and Mexicali. Our investigation has found that these cartels are led primarily by three Mexican criminals who fund the Mexican poachers, and then sell the swim bladders to a group of well-connected Chinese traders and businessmen residing in Mexico. It is those Chinese traders that facilitate the smuggling of totoaba maws to China – the top of the supply chain.
Our Wildlife Crime Division has worked tirelessly to gather the intelligence needed by authorities to disrupt the totoaba supply chain, and ultimately, curb illegal fishing in the Gulf of California. Much of the detailed data gathered during Operation Fake Gold only appears in a Confidential Intelligence Brief (CIB) that has been prepared and submitted to law enforcement authorities in Mexico, China, and the United States. The CIB contains all the non-redacted data gathered regarding the key players, their networks and enablers, and the complete modus operandi of these traffickers and traders, including concrete evidence of illegal activity uncovered during the investigation, as well as hundreds of photos and hours of relevant undercover footage.
The documentary ‘Sea of Shadows’
Finally, through all these months, our work and activities have been filmed as part of the most significant documentary on the vaquita to date, ‘Sea of Shadows’, acquired and distributed by National Geographic.
Produced by Terra Mater Factual Studios in collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way, it was directed by Richard Ladkani/Malaika Pictures, in collaboration with Wild Lens Inc.. Sea of Shadows, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival 2019, winning the Audience Award, is available on the National Geographic Channels and Amazon Prime.