As Mexico Tries to Curb Illegal Fishing, Drug Cartels and Fishermen Push Back

As Mexico Tries to Curb Illegal Fishing, Drug Cartels and Fishermen Push Back
A young woman with the World Wildlife Fund carries a paper mache replica of the critically endangered porpoise known as the vaquita marina, Mexico City, July 8, 2017 (AP photo by Rebecca Blackwell).

Mexico has taken extraordinary measures in recent years to protect marine life threatened by illegal fishing in its waters. But fishermen and drug cartels that profit off illegal fishing have pushed back, heightening tensions. In late December, Mexican fishermen in the Gulf of California shot down a drone that the conservation group Sea Shepherd had deployed to monitor illicit activities. In an email interview, Johan Bergenas, senior director for public policy at Vulcan Inc., and David Soud, head of research and analysis at I.R. Consilium, discuss the impact of illegal fishing in Mexico and the government’s efforts to stop it.

WPR: What is driving tensions between Mexican fishermen and environmental groups in the Gulf of California?

Johan Bergenas and David Soud: One of the main sources of tension in the Gulf of California is the use of gillnets to fish illegally for totoaba, a large fish whose swim bladders fetch extraordinary prices. Fishermen can make up to $8,000 or more per kilogram of bladder, which can then sell for a reported $20,000 per kilogram in China. Because of the financial rewards associated with the totoaba, Mexican cartels draw on illegal fishing for totoaba and other endangered species, including sharks, as an income stream to diversify beyond drug trafficking. As a result, the totoaba has been dubbed “aquatic cocaine.”

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