Addressing Illegal Transnational Trade of Totoaba and Its Role in the Possible Extinction of the Vaquita

V. Boilevin, A. Crosta, S.j. Hennige

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Demand for totoaba swim bladders has created a transnational illicit supply chain network. Organised crime groups are instrumental in this process, impacting Mexico at social, environmental, economic, and political levels. There are five main points within the supply chain: the poachers in the Upper Gulf of California, the Mexican illegal traders, the Chinese illegal traders in Mexico, illegal traders and retailers in China and Hong Kong, and the consumers and investors located primarily in China. Illegal fishers in Mexico use gillnets to capture totoaba, leading to bycatch and decline of the critically endangered vaquita. There have been significant conservation efforts by the local and international communities to reduce this bycatch, but these have been unsuccessful in addressing the continued trafficking of totoaba and the decline of the vaquita. Here we highlight the complexity of the totoaba supply chain and argue that totoaba illegal trade has to be viewed as organised environmental crime rather than as a conservation issue. A particularly enforceable point in the chain is through the Chinese organised crime group in Mexico, which is a crucial link to onward trafficking through ports and airports. While recent efforts have been made with regard to totoaba seizures and prosecutions, to dismantle the supply chain, strong transnational collaboration is needed at multiple levels, and in particular between Mexico, the USA, and China.

Totoaba illegal supply chain from Mexico to consumer countries. In the Upper Gulf of California, Mexico, illegal fishers poach totoaba for organised crime groups (OCG) or ‘totoaba cartels’, consisting of Mexican criminals and Chinese traffickers in Mexico. Totoaba swim bladders are smuggled via transit countries to consumer destinations of China (the main destination), the United States, and Hong Kong. Circles depict the five main levels of the supply chain. The dotted circle indicates a point in the supply chain where disruption would be effective in impacting the larger supply chain.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)104-134
JournalJournal of International Wildlife Law & Policy
Issue number2
Early online date1 Sept 2023
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 1 Sept 2023


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