- The critically endangered vaquita (Phocoena sinus) is often referred to as “the world’s most endangered cetacean species,” but not because of any direct threat, like overfishing.
- The most severe threats to the remaining vaquita is incidental death due to becoming entangled in fishing gear such as gillnets or being killed by commercial shrimp trawlers.
- But it is China’s demand for swim bladders from a giant Mexican fish called the totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi) that is really putting the species at the greatest risk, and the upcoming Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) is a major opportunity to take the necessary steps to protect the vaquita.
There were as many as 570 vaquita in the world back in 1997, but now there are fewer than 60 left — and the species is facing extinction in the very near future if we don’t take immediate action, environmentalists are warning.
The critically endangered vaquita (Phocoena sinus) is often referred to as “the world’s most endangered cetacean species,” but not because of any direct threat, like overfishing. The most severe threats to the remaining vaquita is incidental death due to becoming entangled in fishing gear such as gillnets or being killed by commercial shrimp trawlers.
But it is China’s demand for swim bladders from a giant Mexican fish called the totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi) that is really putting the species at the greatest risk. Between 2011 and 2015, the vaquita population decreased by an estimated 80 percent as a result of bycatch in gillnets set illegally to capture totoaba, according to a new report by the UK-based Environmental Investigation Agency.
Demand for the dried swim bladder or “maw” of the totoaba amongst practitioners of Chinese traditional medicine, who believe that totoaba maws help treat circulatory and skin problems, has risen so high that the maws are called “aquatic cocaine” because of the huge sums they command on the black market, EIA said.
“EIA investigations into the totoaba trade since 2015 have found persistent illegal trade in totoaba swim bladders to supply the main markets in southern China and Hong Kong,” according to the report. “A surge in trade occurred around the beginning of the decade, peaking in 2014 and driven by speculators and criminal groups attracted to rapidly rising prices. By 2015, the value of totoaba had significantly dropped due to a market glut but trade continues in stockpiled maw, with large specimens still fetching more than $50,000.”
Totoaba maws have been known to cost anywhere from $2,500 to $9,400 per 100 grams, the EIA has reported in the past, which sparked a poaching crisis in the roughly 1,500-square-mile area of Mexico’s Gulf of California that is the only place in the world where totoaba and vaquita are known to occur.
The totoaba was listed on Appendix I of the International Convention on Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1976, banning all international trade, but the demand from consumers in Hong Kong and mainland China has continued to be fed by poaching and illegal trade.
“There have been significant efforts to crack down on illegal fishing for totoaba and remove gillnets from the range of the vaquita,” Clare Perry, Head of EIA’s Oceans Campaign, said in a statement. “But these efforts will not save the vaquita without coordinated international action to eliminate the illegal trade in totoaba, particularly in the main consumer market in China.”
The 17th Conference of the Parties to CITES (CoP17), set to begin on September 24 in Johannesburg, South Africa, presents a major opportunity to take the necessary steps to protect both the totoaba and the vaquita, Perry added. Countries should agree to a series of time-bound actions to strengthen international cooperation to eliminate the illegal totoaba trade, she said, with China, Mexico, and the United States — a major transit country for the illegal trade — playing key roles.
Trade in totoaba is illegal under Mexican and U.S. law. Mexico also implemented an emergency two-year ban on gillnet fishing within the vaquita’s range in 2015, and announced earlier this year that the ban would become permanent as of September 2016.
The totoaba trade is ostensibly illegal in China, as well. “[T]he CITES Appendix I listing of totoaba means it is treated as a species under first-class state protection, prohibiting trade, purchase and transport,” according to the EIA report.
But, despite China’s stated commitment to stepping up inspection at entry points and markets, the EIA says in the report that its investigators have discovered that totoaba maws are still openly on sale in the coastal town of Shantou in China’s Guangdong Province, and available upon request in markets in Guangzhou, a port city northwest of Hong Kong.
“China has committed to reduce the impact of illegal wildlife trade, including specifically the trade in totoaba, and we urgently need to see these commitments turned into action,” Perry said. “We are running out of time to prevent the extinction of a species.”