Conservation news

China seizes totoaba swim bladders worth $26 million, arrests 16

  • Chinese customs officials have confiscated 444 kilograms (980 pounds) of totoaba swim bladders, estimated to be worth about $26 million.
  • The ongoing Chinese investigation also led to the arrest of 16 people known to be part of a major totoaba trafficking syndicate.
  • The illegal totoaba fishery has spelled doom not just for the totoabas themselves, but also for the vaquita, the world’s smallest and rarest porpoise, also found only in the Gulf of California.

Chinese customs officials have confiscated 444 kilograms (980 pounds) of swim bladders harvested from totoaba, a critically endangered fish, estimated to be worth about $26 million.

The totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi) is a large marine fish that lives only in the Gulf of California, Mexico. Its dried swim bladders, also called maws, have been dubbed “aquatic cocaine” because of the high prices they fetch in mainland China and Hong Kong, with large maws reportedly earning up to $47,000 in local black markets, according to the investigative NGO Elephant Action League (EAL).

Apart from the seizures, the latest Chinese undercover operation, named “SY608,” which involved several raids carried out across cities in Guangdong and Guangxi, also led to the arrest of 16 people. These individuals are part of one of the main totoaba trafficking syndicates, according to conservation group WildAid.

“Though the investigation is still ongoing, preliminary results show the syndicate would purchase the totoaba swim bladders in Mexico then transport them through multiple transit points using suitcases before entering [China] to be sold illegally,” WildAid said in the statement.

Mexico banned totoaba fishery in 1975 after totoaba catches declined drastically. But illegal fishing continues because of the high demand for totoaba swim bladders in China, where it is incorrectly believed to treat fertility and circulatory problems. In April this year, Mexican authorities arrested two Chinese nationals who were attempting to smuggle hundreds of dried totoaba swim bladders in suitcases.

The illegal totoaba market has spelled doom for the vaquita (Phocoena sinus), the world’s smallest and rarest porpoise, also found only in the Gulf of California. The vaquita gets entangled in gillnets meant for totoabas, which has led to its population collapsing to only 12 individuals.

“For many years China was not aware of the illegal trade in totoaba bladders,” WildAid CEO Peter Knights said in the statement. “But when alerted, they stopped open trade and now they are taking down smuggling rings. Let’s hope their decisive action can help the remaining vaquita porpoises that are literally on the brink of extinction.”

NOAA Fisheries picture from 1992 showing a vaquita, bottom, captured as bycatch along with a totoaba in Sonora, Mexico. Image by NOAA.