(NaturalNews) Drugs. Guns. Human beings. And now -- fish bladder? That appears to be the new item being trafficked by Mexican crime cartels.
According to Fox News, Mexican drug cartels are becoming more deeply involved in the very lucrative, if slightly odd, business of trafficking the bladders of exotic fish to markets mostly in Asia.
News of the odd, new business began surfacing in June after the murder of Samuel Gallardo Castro, whose alias was "El Samy," the leader of a Mexico-based organized criminal enterprise in the Sonaran town of El Golfo de Santa Clara. A man there confessed to local authorities that he had gunned down the drug boss because Gallardo owed him $1 million for a shipment of bladders from the totoaba fish.
Police eventually released the man because they doubted his mental capacities. However, "his statement was not the first time the murky business of the underground fish bladder trade has made headlines in Mexico" and elsewhere, Fox News reported, adding:
The totoaba's large swim bladder, which controls its buoyancy, is a delicacy in China, where it's placed in soup and can cost as much as $25,000 a bowl. An investigation by the online news site Mexicali Digital revealed that the bladders can fetch anywhere from $7,000 to $14,000 a piece in the black market. The totoaba bladders are normally taken from the Gulf of California and shipped to the United States before making their way across the Pacific Ocean to various Asian ports.
'We look for big fish'
"It's aquatic cocaine," Jay Barlow, a marine mammal expert at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration," told Britain's Daily Mail. "With two days of fishing, you can buy a new pickup truck."
According to Mexicali Digital, per Google Translate, the bladders are smuggled to Asia in small refrigerators or "shopping bags." The site reported that finding Asian buyers for the delicacy was not a problem.
When caught, the bladders are stripped out of totoaba, and the rest of the fish is cast out; on some mornings after a particularly large catch, the bodies of the stripped fish litter the ocean's surface.
"We look for big fish, with swish weighing over a kilo, because you can get at least $6,000," one fisherman, who was not identified, told Mexicali Digital.
The totoaba is related to the drum fish and can grow to be as much as 7 feet in length, weigh more than 200 pounds and live for as long as 25 years. The totoaba have been listed as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act in the U.S. since 1979 and, because the species is federally protected in both the U.S. and Mexico, it is illegal to take, possess or sell them.
In addition to the U.S. classification, the fish has also been labeled endangered by several other groups, due to its widespread poaching because of its bladder and also the diversion of water from the Colorado River in the U.S. where they spawn, due to widespread drought in the Western United States, which has left little to no fresh water able to reach the delta. That has dramatically altered the environment in the Colorado River delta, as well as the salinity of the upper Sea of Cortez.
Trafficking worsening in Latin America
Last year, Mexican authorities managed to intercept and take down a group of smugglers trafficking totoaba in the Sea of Cortez. Mexican authorities seized parts of the fish that were worth between $35,000 and $60,000 while arresting four people.
In April 2014, U.S. authorities filed criminal charges against seven people for their role in killing and smuggling totoaba bladders.
"Many species, including the Totoaba, are teetering on the brink of extinction due to poaching to supply the illegal wildlife trade. While we may never know how many Totoaba bladders were harvested illegally, such disregard for the protections that were put in place to benefit this endangered species could have a disastrous effect on the fish population," U.S. Fish and Wildlife Deputy Chief Edward Grace said in a press release, according to Fox News.
The poaching of marine life throughout Latin America has become a major issue. The security website InSight Crime has reported a number of such instances, including shark fin poachers in Costa Rica, the illegal slaughter of dolphins in Peru and -- in addition to the fish bladders -- the hunting of sea horses and sea cucumbers in Mexico.