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A massive shipment of illegal fish bladders estimated to be worth a whopping $2.7million (£2.1million) have been seized US Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
In what's thought to be the second largest seizure of its kind in the US, officers working at the Area Port of Nogales in Arizona discovered 242lbs of swim bladders, the organ that helps fish control their buoyancy, as they were being smuggled into the country from Mexico.
When it comes to smuggling operations between the US and Mexico, fish bladders probably aren't the first thing that comes to mind.
READ MORE: Cartels use TikTok and Grand Theft Auto to recruit teens to smuggle drugs and people
But these were no ordinary fish guts, with officials claiming DNA testing indicated the bladders belonged to the endangered Totoaba fish — a highly sought-after and valuable Chinese delicacy.
The Totoaba fish, a species native to Mexico's Gulf of California, has been listed as an endangered species under the US Endangered Species Act since 1979.
Because they're federally protected in both the US and Mexico, it is illegal to take, possess, transport, or sell them.
But according to the CBP the endangered fish's swim bladders are "prized in Traditional Chinese Medicine and as an Asian cultural delicacy" and on April 13 officers at the Mariposa trade facility found 270 of them stashed in a commercial shipment of frozen fish fillets, officials announced on Monday.
The black market trade of the prohibited fish is a lucrative one and the Totoaba's swim bladder has been dubbed "aquatic cocaine" due to its high value in China.
Wealthy residents are reportedly willing to fork out thousands of pounds for one of the dried bladders, known as fish maw.
The illegal fishing operations aren't just putting the Totoaba species at risk, it's also resulted in the co-demise of the Vaquita porpoise, the CBP said.
According to WWF the little porpoise, which is also native to the Gulf of California, is often caught and drowned in the gillnets used to catch Totoabas.
Now the Vaquita is the world's rarest marine mammal and is on the brink of extinction with only about 10 of the animals remaining.
CBP officers at the scene in April contacted the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), who took possession of the Totoaba swim bladders.
The smuggling attempt is currently under investigation by USFWS and Homeland Security.
"This find by our CBP Officers, potentially the second largest seizure of Totoaba swim bladders nationwide, is an exceptional example of the job they do enforcing laws regarding all commodities entering the United States," said Tucson Field Office Director of Field Operations Guadalupe Ramirez.
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