By Elliot Spagat
24 April 2013
SAN DIEGO (AP) – Seven people have been charged with smuggling bladders from an endangered fish in what authorities said Wednesday may be a growing international practice in which the bladders are sold for up to $20,000 each to be used in a highly desired soup.
U.S. border inspectors in Calexico have seized 529 bladders since February that they believe were destined for China and Hong Kong. The probe began when an inspector spotted about 30 bladders buried in an ice chest.
The bladders came from totoaba fish that live exclusively in Mexico's Sea of Cortez. Also known as Mexican giant bass or giant croaker, the fish can measure up to 7 feet long and weigh more than 200 pounds. The cream-colored, leathery bladders alone measure up to 3 feet.
The fish are captured with gillnets when they migrate in the spring to the shallow waters in the northern Sea of Cortez, authorities said. The gas-filled bladders, which keep the fish buoyant, are removed and taken to stash houses along the border, with the fish carcasses left to rot on gulf shores near the tourist town of San Felipe.
The totoaba has been protected under the Convention on International Trade and Endangered Species since 1976 and was added to the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1979. Fishing is also prohibited in Mexico.
The totoaba population began to plummet in the 1940s after construction of the Hoover Dam in the U.S. limited the flow of Colorado River water into Mexico. Totoaba spawned near the mouth of the river.
Heavy fishing and inadvertent capture of young fish in shrimp nets also exacerbated the decline.
Just as shark fins are coveted for use in a different soup, the totoaba is desired for its meat but even more for its dried bladders. The organs used in fish maw soup are tasteless but are said to improve skin, blood circulation and fertility. [more]