Two Men Busted In California With Endangered Totoaba Worth $3.7 Million; Hunting Of These Fish Has Led To Only An Estimated 20 Critically Endangered Vaquita Remaining In The Wild

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Two smugglers were recently caught with $3.76 million worth of dried swim bladders of an endangered fish called the Totoaba, after being pulled over in Orange County, California.

It all began when a California deputy sheriff pulled over a vehicle for speeding. After speaking with the driver, something about their story seemed off. According to a search warrant application filed in California Federal Count, the two men, Chinese nationals named Yikang Liang and Haoyu Huang, said they had traveled to the United States to shop for clothes.

After it was discovered that Liang and Huang had entered the United States from Mexico in separate vehicles two days earlier, the Sheriff began to suspect drug smuggling and called for back up.

Three boxes that the sheriff noticed while questioning the suspects were inspected but no drugs were found. Instead, they discovered the dried swim bladders of 132 Totoaba, weighing roughly 104 pounds.

According to the warrant application, Totoaba swim bladders are highly prized in Asia and sell for $20,000 to $80,000 per kilogram, “rivaling the price of gold and cocaine.”

Like many other myths that the Chinese believe to be “medicine,” they believe Totoaba swim bladders have revitalizing properties. Which is untrue.

The Totoaba is only found in one place on earth and that is the Sea of Cortez. The hunting of this endangered fish has led to the steep decline of the Vaquita Porpoise, of which there are only an estimated 20 Vaquita remaining in the wild. Since 1976, Totoaba have been protected under CITES Appendix I, and also under the Endangered Species Act since 1979.

The illegal trade in Totoaba has received wide international public attention in the past two years, due to its effect on the critically endangered Vaquita.

The Vaquita is a porpoise that inhabits the same range as the Totoaba, and is often an unintended by-catch in the nets that are used by fishermen to illegally catch Totoaba. The Vaquita does not have much time left unless the Mexican government steps up to protect them. 

Unfortunately, criminal charges have yet to be filed against the two men. After investigators obtained a search warrant, they anticipate that will help them discover a larger operation that may exist along with other information.

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