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‘Aquatic cocaine’: Illegal trade in swim bladders of rare fish puts world’s rarest porpoise at risk of extinction

  • Dried swim bladders of totoabas (also called “maw”) have been dubbed “aquatic cocaine” due to the high prices they fetch mainly in Chinese markets.
  • Illegal trade in the swim bladder of the totoabas, has placed not just the totoabas but also the world’s smallest and rarest marine mammal, the vaquita, at risk of extinction, according to report.
  • EIA’s investigation has also identified numerous online platforms, such as Facebook, that actively trade in fish maw, including discussions on best routes to smuggle maws into Hong Kong and China.

An illegal trade in the swim bladder of the rare totoabas has placed both these fish and the world’s smallest and rarest marine mammal — the vaquita — at risk of extinction, a report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has revealed. Both species are critically endangered, and found only in the Gulf of California.

Dried swim bladders of totoabas — organs that help fish float — have been dubbed “aquatic cocaine” due to the high prices they fetch mainly in Chinese markets. For every kilogram of totoaba swim bladders sold, fishermen reportedly receive up to $8,500 in the local black market, according to the report. This demand for swim bladders (also called “maw”), for unproven medicinal benefits, is threatening not just the rare totoabas (Totoaba macdonaldi), but also the vaquita (Phocoena sinus), which get caught illegally in nets used to catch totoabas.

In fact, fewer than 100 vaquitas remain in the Gulf of California. And conservationists estimate that if the current rate of decline continues, vaquitas could become extinct by 2018.

“The vaquita’s extinction clock stands at one minute to midnight and the species is being pushed into oblivion by the demand of a relatively small number of Chinese consumers of totoaba maw,” Clare Perry, Team Leader of EIA’s Oceans Campaign, said in a statement.

Fewer than 100 vaquitas remain in the Gulf of California. Photo by Paula Olson, NOAA.

Once abundant in the waters of Gulf of California, Totoabas, which can grow more than two meters in length and weigh around 100 kilograms (~220.5 pounds), declined rapidly due to habitat degradation, overfishing, bycatch and illegal fishing. These large-sized fishes are particularly vulnerable to overfishing because of their long life-spans and slow reproduction.

To protect the rare totoabas, trade in these fishes, or any of their parts, is illegal under both Mexican and U.S. law. To protect the vaquitas, Mexico has also implemented a two-year ban on on gillnet fishing — a major cause of vaquita entanglement and death — throughout the vaquita range.

Despite these laws, poachers continue to use gillnets to capture totoabas, the report notes. “Totoaba are captured in anchored, large-mesh gill nets set at night which are left for several days. Illegal activity is especially common during the spawning season, when totoaba are most vulnerable and before the adults are able to spawn,” according to the report.

In the U.S. and Mexico, in areas adjoining the totoaba and vaquita range in the Gulf of California, there have been several totoaba seizures in recent years. In October last year, for instance, Mexican authorities seized 543 totoaba fish in the Sea of Cortez, resulting in 19 arrests, according to the report.

Fish maw of totoaba on display during the press conference by Greenpeace East Asia. Photo by Greenpeace/ Sudhanshu Malhotra.

The demand for fish swim bladders or maws is greatest in Hong Kong and mainland southern China, the report notes. Conservationists believe that the recent increase in the illegal trade in totoaba is likely connected to its “perceived kinship to the giant yellow croaker or Chinese bahaba (Bahaba taipingensis), a highly valued sciaenid that has been overfished to such an extent it is listed as critically endangered by the IUCN.”

Locally, both bahaba and totoaba are known as Jin Qian Min, meaning “golden coin maw” due to their high value, rarity and unproven medicinal value. An investigation by EIA in May 2015 revealed that fish maw was easily available in Hong Kong and Chinese markets, indicating a “failure by enforcement agencies to curb their smuggling and sale.”

In fact, EIA’s investigation revealed that the spike in illegal trade in totoaba had resulted in a 60-80 percent decline in the market price for totoaba maw since 2012. Due to the oversupply, traders are now believed to be holding on to stock, the report found, hoping for a hike in totoaba maw price in the future.

EIA also identified numerous online platforms, such as Facebook, that trade in fish maw.  Many users even post information on the best routes to smuggle totoabas into Hong Kong and China.

To protect the totoabas, and in turn the vaquitas, EIA recommends strengthening enforcement efforts and increasing information sharing, cooperation and raising awareness. The report also recommends making the two-year gillnet ban permanent.

“The vaquita and totoaba are both fully protected under national law as well as internationally through their CITES Appendix I listings, but such safeguards are worthless without urgent intervention on the ground to enforce them,” Perry said.

‘Totoaba’ fish maw offered for sale online. The advertisement describes the ’long-tubuled golden coin fish maw’ as ‘precious as gold, ideal for collection and gift’. Photo from EIA report, 2016.