San Felipe, Mexico — The dried fish parts do not look like much to the novice eye, but the totoaba swim bladders discreetly displayed in this shop in Guangzhou, China sell for up to $20,000. Half a world away, off the coast of Mexico, poachers battling each other for this "cocaine of the sea" are using drug cartel-like tactics to get it — pushing two species toward extinction and leaving ordinary fishermen fighting to survive. The lucrative black market for totoaba swim bladders — prized in Chinese traditional medicine for their purported healing and beautifying properties — have turned the Gulf of California into a battleground, criss-crossed by armed poachers, Mexican navy vessels and environmental activists patrolling with pirate flags. The casualties of this war include not only the critically endangered totoaba, but also the world’s smallest porpoise, the vaquita marina — of which just 30 remain, according to scientists — and local fishermen caught in the middle. Mexican author...

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