How “Sea Cocaine” Brought the World’s Smallest Porpoise to the Brink of Extinction

As few as a dozen vaquita are left. They’re an accidental casualty of a black market trade controlled by international crime syndicates.
vice cartel fishing story mexico

The vaquita is a small, round-headed species of porpoise with distinctive, panda-like markings around its mouth and eyes, which—for now, at least—can be found in the northern waters of Mexico’s Gulf of California. 

But ecologists warn that this is unlikely to be the case for much longer, unless things change radically. 

That’s due in no small part to the appetites of Chinese consumers for an expensive delicacy harvested from another marine species. As organized crime syndicates have sought to cash in on the demand for this delicacy, the vaquita has become an unintended casualty, further pushing the critically endangered porpoise to the brink of extinction.


The vaquita, meaning “little cow” in Spanish, is the world’s most endangered marine mammal. Only up to a dozen or so are believed to remain—the latest survey of their habitat estimated that there are only six to eight individuals, although others might exist outside the surveyed area. That’s down from an estimated population of about 600 in the late 1990s. 

The primary reason for this perilous decline in the population is fishing nets—the most dangerous of which is the gillnet, a wall of netting that kills marine life indiscriminately—which trap the vaquitas as an unintended bycatch. 

Threats to the vaquita have been exacerbated by illegal fishing for another endangered fish species called the totoaba, which swims in the same waters of the Gulf of California. The totoaba are sought after for their swim bladders, or “maw,” which are highly prized in China for their use in traditional medicines and cosmetics and can fetch prices of tens of thousands of dollars per kilogram. The lucrative black market trade has only increased the use of gill nets in the vaquita’s home waters.

A new VICE documentary, The Cartel’s Cash Catch, investigates the plight of the vaquita and the underground trade that poses a critical threat to the species’ survival, delivering the totoaba maw to faraway consumers in China and the United States. During the three-year investigation, VICE spoke to figures on all sides of this ecologically disastrous industry, including the fishermen who illegally catch the totoaba despite bans on the practice, and the organized crime syndicates, both Chinese and Mexican, who see the thriving demand for totoaba maw as an irresistible opportunity. 


“It's a source of income for us,” said one representative of the infamous Sinaloa cartel, who claimed he controlled the totoaba trade in the region. “I'm in charge of everything. I know what goes to China, to the U.S, relating to totoaba.”

He said the cartel produced the nets used by fishermen and paid them $600 for every totoaba they brought in. He said the totoaba maw shipped to the U.S. fetched an even higher price than that shipped to China.

“It's one of the main places where we generate the most money,” said the cartel operative, who did not want to be named. “In one day, we get from five to eight [bladders]. And we send every week to the U.S. approximately 40. It's $475,000 a week, just from the U.S.”

A fisherman involved in the totoaba fishery, who also did not wish to be named, said the high premiums paid for illegally catching the fish made it hard to resist for him and his colleagues, who otherwise struggled to make ends meet.

“As it goes here in San Felipe, you have to get by somehow.” –A totoaba fisherman

“As it goes here in San Felipe, you have to get by somehow,” he said. “Lots of fishermen risk their lives to put any food on the table. Maybe half of all the fishermen are involved in this.”


“There's a reason this fish was once called ‘sea cocaine.’ For as long as there are buyers, this is not going to end.”

Mexican authorities have taken steps to counter the illegal trade and protect the vaquita, including creating a federally protected zone called the Vaquita Refuge, which houses a “zero tolerance area” where all fishing activity is banned. Authorities have encouraged fishermen engaged in legal fishing to use more ecologically sustainable nets that are safer for the vaquita, and the Mexican Navy has dropped concrete blocks topped with metal hooks that rip and destroy gillnets in the vaquitas’ habitat.

But the measures taken so far have failed to arrest the catastrophic decline in the vaquita population. And while gillnet fishing is banned throughout much of the upper Gulf of California, the practice remains widespread. 

Meanwhile, according to Andrea Crosta, the director of Earth League International, targeting Chinese totoaba traffickers in Mexico would be the most effective approach to clamping down on the trade. His nonprofit has investigated totoaba trafficking, but recent prosecutions of suspected totoaba traffickers in Mexico have often failed to produce results.

“For as long as there are buyers, this is not going to end.”

One of the biggest arrests in recent years of a Chinese totoaba trafficker operating in Mexico was a member of a Chinese crime syndicate who was caught with more than 200 totoaba bladders, worth an estimated $20 million. But in April, the suspect reached a “compensation agreement” with Mexican authorities and was released. 


Barbara Taylor, a retired scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has worked in vaquita conservation for more than three decades and is the leading US expert on the subject.

She said the status quo, which looked set to doom the species, remained in place due to two main factors.

“We're still in this position largely because of lack of governmental will and lack of real, solid economics to make it move from an unsustainable fishery to a sustainable fishery,” she said.

For the Mexican government, she said, there was a clear moral incentive to act more decisively to save the species.

“Not driving their largest endemic mammal extinct on their watch,” she said. “I mean, that, to me, is something that you shouldn't be proud of.”

Watch the new VICE documentary The Cartel’s Cash Catch in English here, or in Spanish here.