Regional Update: Mexico’s West Coast Fisheries

A map of the Gulf of California. Image via Valnet Inc.

The Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez, is the body of water south of Southern California that separates Mexico’s Baja California peninsula from the country’s mainland. It’s one of the more productive and biodiverse marine ecoregions in the world and a bustling area for commercial fishing.

And although there are plenty of legitimate, law-abiding anglers earning a living fishing in the waters, there’s also a number of bad actors who make money by illegally trafficking some fish species to sell them on the black market.

In the U.S., much of the news disseminated about crime in Mexico focuses on land activity, the country’s cartels also have a hold on some of the illicit activity that occurs offshore. However, like with land-based crime, Mexican authorities are waged in an ongoing battle against the criminals.

One of the more noteworthy recent examples of this is the arrest earlier this year of members of the so-called “Totoaba Cartel,” as well as the stated leader of the “Cartel of the Sea,” two groups that have targeted the endangered totoaba fish species for its swim bladder, which is considered a delicacy in Asia.

In a January press conference, the Mexican Navy confirmed that since 2019, law enforcement officials have managed to arrest and imprison several members of cartels focused on trafficking of totoaba, thereby dismantling some of the main organized crime groups contributing to declining Gulf of California fish populations.

The two aforementioned cartels now appear to be defunct, the Navy said. However, the nonprofit environmental science and conservation news platform Mongabay has reported on other criminal organizations’ interest in trafficking totoaba bladders, suggesting that threats against marine life in the gulf would continue. Part the reason why is the value.

According to regional reports, totoaba bladders can go for between $20,000 and $80,000 per kilo (one kilo is about 2.2 pounds). The bladders’ high value has earned it the nickname “cocaine of the sea.”

The arrested cartel members—who were reportedly both Mexican and Chinese—are said to have provided fishermen with the expensive nets needed to catch totoaba and then smuggled their bladders to China on commercial flights and by other means.

The Gulf of California is also home to the vaquita, a porpoise about five feet long that often gets caught in the fishing nets. As a result, experts have said that there’s only around nine vaquita left, something that’s led to a growing response from the government and conservation groups to set up patrols and monitoring systems.

Last year, Mongabay reported on the difficulty of developing conservation measures for the vaquita, as some experts believe the issue should be left to crime specialists, not biologists or activists.

The Mexican Navy has said that since 2020, it has carried out over 14,000 boat inspections and over 6,500 vehicle inspections. It also checked 37 warehouses and other buildings. In addition to the cartel arrests, officials managed to confiscate 744 illegal fishing nets.

The Navy’s top official, Admiral José Rafael Ojeda Durán, said in the aforementioned January news conference that the Mexican government has installed radar around “zero-tolerance zones” and worked to create a culture of reporting among local fishermen.

The efforts have been carried out in coordination with the country’s national Agriculture and Rural Development department, Environment and Natural Resources department and the National Commission for Aquaculture and Fisheries.

Sharks: Hunting & Hunted

But cartel criminality isn’t the only threat to anglers trying to make an honest living off the coast of Baja California. In January, a fisherman was reportedly beheaded by a great white shark.

On Jan. 5, a man thought to be in his 50s was reportedly diving for ax tripe—a scallop-like mollusk—with colleagues on the west coast of the state of Sonora when he was killed by a huge great white, according to the website Tracking Sharks.

“He was diving when the animal attacked him, ripping off his head and biting both shoulders,” fisherman Jose Bernal, who witnessed the attack from the group’s boat, was quoted as saying.

The fishermen said the shark that killed their partner was estimated at around 19 feet long. The largest great whites on record have measured about 20 feet, according to the website.

Local divers had previously been warned of great white shark sightings in the area for several days prior to the attack and some had avoided entering the water as a result.

“What happened is unfortunate, but we have to work, because that’s what we live on,” the president of a local fishing cooperative in the area, José Luis Reina, told Mexican news outlet El Imparcial.

Some local fishing organizations have called on the Mexican government to provide divers with special equipment that can deter sharks, such as bracelets and other wearable equipment that emit an electromagnetic field.

Sharks use electroreception—the biological ability to perceive weak electric fields, such as those in other lifeforms, including humans—in order to hunt and navigate. The idea behind the deterrent devices is that they disrupt this sensory system in sharks and rays, without harming them, making the wearer an unattractive target.

The Jan. 5 incident was the first confirmed fatal shark attack of 2023. Last year, another scallop diver was killed by a shark in the same region—about 10 miles off the fishing port of Yavaros, in the state of Sonora, located on the Gulf of California’s coast.

Great white sharks are most commonly seen in the Gulf of California between December and January, when pregnant females visit the area. Globally, shark attacks are very rare—and fatal incidents even more so.

The odds of being killed by a shark are about one in 3.7 million, according to the International Shark Attack File.

In 2022, more than 90 shark attack bites were recorded around the world, nine of which were fatal, Tracking Sharks data show.

However, according to research from marine biologist Daniel J. Madigan, who’s with the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada, fishermen operating out of Isla San Esteban, Mexico have been known to illegally catch and kill great white sharks by plying the waters of the Gulf of California in small boats known as pangas.

After hunting down and killing the enormous fish, they have been known to haul them to remote beaches and dismember them.

Local reports and internet postings collected by Madigan’s colleague, Natalie Arnoldi, a marine ecologist at Stanford University in Northern California indicate that similar illegal fishing is likely occurring at Isla San Ildefonso, Mexico, about 155 miles to the south.

Harvesting great white sharks of any age is prohibited by Mexican law, as well as by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. However, since the Gulf of California is so large—about 61,776 square miles—resources to monitor impacts on fish populations are limited.

Most of the 26,000 boats operating in the Gulf are pangas and many operate illegally. Most of the fishermen who pilot them are said to live either at or below the poverty line, Mexican media outlets have reported.

And their reliance on the Gulf’s resources is taking a toll.

About 80% of its fishing is considered unsustainable. And as stocks of reliable commercial species continue to plummet, fishermen increasingly turn to less conventional sources of income, like hunting great white sharks, which can be not just dangerous, but deadly.