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More than 800 totoaba swim bladders confiscated by Mexican authorities in smuggling busts

  • In two separate arrests of Chinese nationals, Mexican police confiscated more than 800 swim bladders from a large fish called the totoaba.
  • Totoaba swim bladders are used in traditional medicine and can fetch thousands of dollars per kilogram in Chinese markets.
  • Fishing for totoaba has also pushed a small porpoise called the vaquita close to extinction. One recent estimate puts the number of animals left in the wild at 12.

In a span of five days in late April, Mexican police arrested two men attempting to take hundreds of dried swim bladders, harvested from a critically endangered species of fish, out of the country, according to reporting by the Mexico News Daily.

On April 22, officials caught a Chinese citizen at the Mexico City International Airport with 416 swim bladders, or maws — 355 of which came from the totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi), a large fish that lives only in the Gulf of California. Three days later, authorities discovered 417 totoaba maws in two suitcases of another Chinese national who was on his way to Guangzhou in southern China via Tokyo, the office of Mexico’s attorney general said in a statement.

NOAA Fisheries picture from 1992 showing a vaquita captured as bycatch (bottom) along with a totoaba (top) in Sonora, Mexico. Image by Omar Vidal (Public domain).

Buyers in China prize the swim bladders for their use in traditional medicine, leading to a recent surge in demand for totoaba. The fishery has also exacted a devastating toll on the vaquita (Phocoena sinus), a small porpoise endemic to the Gulf of California. Entanglement in nets has driven the population down to a handful of individuals, and it’s considered the world’s most endangered cetacean. Andrea Crosta, who directs the investigative NGO Elephant Action League (EAL), recently told Mongabay that they believe that only 12 vaquita still live in the wild.

Crosta was not optimistic about efforts to protect either species.

“The central government of Mexico recently stepped up efforts to curb the use of gillnets in the area where the vaquita lives, but with very poor results, in my opinion,” he said in an interview published on March 8. In his recent trip to the Gulf of California, he said he saw “dozens” of illegal fishing boats in areas with vaquitas.

“I think they are actually waiting for the vaquita to go extinct so they can fish more and with fewer restrictions,” Crosta said.

A suitcase stuffed with totoaba maws confiscated on April 25. Image courtesy of Mexico’s Office of the Attorney General.

At the average price of RMB 140,000 ($22,000) per kilogram reported in a 2017 EAL investigation, the 29.7 kilograms (65.5 pounds) of totoaba swim bladders confiscated on April 22 would be worth more than $650,000 in Chinese markets.

The Mexico News Daily said that a judge ordered the man arrested in that instance to remain in Mexico, where he will be tried for “transporting endemic wildlife products for commercial purposes.”

In the second case, the attorney general’s office said it turned the contraband and the alleged smuggler, known as Deqing “N,” over to a special prosecutor’s office. Authorities could charge him with transporting an aquatic species for which the season has been closed.

In Crosta’s view, stamping out the illegal trade in totoaba maws is critical.

“Given the dire circumstances surrounding vaquitas and the issues associated with the totoaba swim bladder trade in Mexico, including possible corruption and involvement of drug cartels, it is vital to fully research, investigate, and map all aspects of the totoaba supply chain,” Crosta said following EAL’s investigation in 2017.

A vaquita swims in the Gulf of California. Image by Paula Olson/NOAA via Wikimedia Commons (Public domain).

Banner image of totoaba maws courtesy of Mexico’s Office of the Attorney General.

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