- After a 40-year prohibition, international wildlife trade regulator CITES has authorized the export of captive-bred totoaba fish from Mexico.
- Conservationists say they fear this decision will stimulate the illegal fishing of wild totoabas and that this will intensify the threats facing the critically endangered vaquita porpoise.
- Only around eight individual vaquitas remain alive; they regularly drown in nets set illegally for totoabas in the Upper Gulf of California, where the two species overlap.
- The swim bladders of totoabas are sold in Asian markets at exorbitant prices because of their value as status symbols and their supposed medicinal properties.
International wildlife trade regulator CITES recently decided to allow an aquaculture company in Mexico to export captive-raised totoabas, a large fish categorized as being in danger of extinction under Mexican law.
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The fishing and international trade of the totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi) have been prohibited for more than 40 years, yet illegal fishing for it persists in the Upper Gulf of California. The swim bladders of totoabas are coveted in Asian markets, where they fetch exorbitant prices because of their value as status symbols and their supposed medicinal properties.
This illegal activity has not only harmed wild totoaba populations, but it has also pushed vaquita porpoises (Phocoena sinus) to the brink of extinction because they become trapped in fishing nets set for totoabas. With an estimated eight individuals left on the planet, the vaquita is considered the most threatened marine mammal in the world.
Some experts fear the March 10 decision by the CITES Standing Committee to allow Earth Ocean Farms to sell totoabas internationally will increase demand for this species, further encouraging illegal fishing and intensifying pressure on the vaquita.
The risks of legalizing trade
The argument for allowing the international trade in captive-bred totoabas rests on CITES guidelines that say “the second generation raised in captivity of an endangered species can be traded,” according to Alejandro Olivera, a senior scientist and Mexico representative at the Arizona-based environmental group Center for Biological Diversity.
The existence of a legal market for totoabas could discourage the illegal trade, according to Rodrigo Medellín, a researcher from the Ecology and Terrestrial Vertebrate Conservation Laboratory under the Institute of Ecology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “The demand that exists in the Chinese market for swim bladders will remain,” said Medellín, who represented Mexico before the CITES Animals Committee. “If we have the possibility of it being traded legally, there should no longer be any incentive for the illegal fishing and illegal trading of the wild totoaba.
“When legal trade actions are implemented with all the instruments of sustainability and traceability of the products that will be traded, the species benefit and they end up at a good level of conservation and protection,” Medellín added. “There are many examples in which traceability mechanisms — to trace the origin of the product and guarantee its legality — are perfectly certain and work very well. The case of the hunting of wild bighorn sheep [Ovis canadensis], which is sustainable and is strengthening the populations of that species in Mexico, is a very clear example [showing] that the mechanisms exist and that when they are applied, they work very well.”
To make this happen in the case of the totoaba, Medellín said it’s important that the law be applied, that an effective traceability system exist, and that Mexico, the United States and China join forces to block the illegal trade in totoaba swim bladders. According to Medellín, this is the only way legal trade can work and the futures of the vaquita and the totoaba can be secured.
But even Medellín and other experts say they doubt Mexico currently has the right conditions to apply traceability mechanisms effectively. “You go to San Felipe and they sell you totoaba along the pier. Everyone tells you that it is from the farm, but you are never certain that that is true,” Olivera told Mongabay.
Even if “traceability mechanisms definitely exist and have been able to be implemented with many other species, I cannot say that at the moment we have the conditions so that the Mexican government can apply them and that we can be certain that all the international totoaba trade will be legal. We do not have it yet; that much is clear,” Medellín said.
Scientists and conservationists say they fear that after Earth Ocean Farms, other companies will request permission to export totoabas and that the work of monitoring and tracing them will become even more complicated.
According to experts, the most tangible evidence of Mexico’s weakness in applying the law is the persistence of illegal fishing of totoabas that the country has still not been able to eradicate. “Mexico has repeatedly failed to prevent illegal totoaba fishing for the international market for their swim bladders,” Clare Perry, leader of the ocean and climate campaign at the Environmental Investigation Agency, said in a March 11 press release from the Center for Biological Diversity. The legal trade of the totoaba “will only complicate enforcement,” she said.
Demand may skyrocket
Olivera said this latest development could lead to an increase in demand for totoaba.
The Mexican government and Earth Ocean Farms have committed to exporting only the meat from totoabas raised in captivity and destroying their swim bladders. But it’s the latter part of the fish that’s most coveted abroad, not their meat. According to Olivera, there’s currently no market in China for totoaba meat. He and other experts say they fear that with the opening of a new market for this meat, the demand for totoaba will increase, which could intensify the illegal fishing of wild totoabas and directly affect the vaquita population. “We believe that a legal market will generate greater pressure on the vaquita because it could open up a larger totoaba market in Asia, and that increase in demand could be made up for with wild totoaba,” Olivera said.
Some experts also maintain that the existence of a legal market may serve as a channel for laundering illegally caught totoaba into the market. For example, the swim bladders could be trafficked while hidden among shipments of legal exports of totoaba meat.
That kind of trafficking from China to Mexico is already quite common, according to a recent report by the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit public policy organization. “Legal wildlife trade from Mexico to China, such as in sea cucumbers and crocodilian skins, provides cover for laundering poached animals,” the report states. “[E]ven the legitimate fishing and export industry provides a means to channel illegally-caught marine products to China.”
The investigation, conducted by Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert on organized crime, found that “the legal trade in wildlife also increasingly facilitates the money laundering activities of Mexican criminal groups.” The investigation also said that “[o]rganized crime groups across Mexico, especially the Sinaloa Cartel, seek to monopolize both legal and illegal fisheries along the entire vertical supply chain.”
The beneficiaries of the decision
The company Earth Ocean Farms, owned by Christy Ruth Walton, the widow of a son of the founder of Walmart, is already involved in every stage of the production of totoaba for consumption. This includes breeding the fish in a laboratory, rearing young totoabas, growing the fish to harvestable size in underwater cages in the open sea, and processing the totoabas in a plant, where workers clean the meat, pack it, and send it to exclusive seafood restaurants in Mexico.
“Given the situation of the totoaba in the Upper Gulf of California and with the problem of the extinction of the vaquita, we can make sure that the totoaba will never go extinct for as long as we manage the reproduction of the species in captivity,” Pablo Konietzko, director of Earth Ocean Farms, told Mongabay Latam in 2019 for an article about raising totoabas to save them from extinction.
According to Konietzko, 40,000 specimens were reintroduced into their natural habitat in the Gulf of California in 2018 as part of the conservation and repopulation program for this species.
The problem, according to some experts, is the notion of allowing exports of the fish. “CITES is viewing the totoaba in a way that is separate from the vaquita, and we believe that they cannot be viewed separately,” Olivera said.
During the CITES summit of 2019, member states agreed to reduce the demand for totoaba. However, conservationists say the recent CITES decision is contrary to that goal. “This is the hypocrisy of CITES on full display — agreeing to reduce demand for totoaba to protect the vaquita one day and then authorizing trade in totoaba the next,” D.J. Schubert, a wildlife biologist with the Washington, D.C.-based Animal Welfare Institute, said in the press release. “It is shameful that the majority of committee members have decided to choose commerce over conservation, jeopardizing the very existence of the most critically endangered cetacean on the planet.”
Of the 15 member nations on the CITES voting committee, Senegal, the Republic of Congo, Peru, Israel and Australia voted against the request to allow totoaba exports. Namibia, Ethiopia, China, Kuwait, Indonesia, the Dominican Republic, Poland, Belgium and Georgia voted in favor of it. Canada abstained from voting.
Mongabay Latam sent questions to the CITES administrative authority in Mexico, to Mexico’s National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (CONABIO), and to Earth Ocean Farms, but received no response by the time this article was originally published in Spanish on April 7.
“This decision is nonsense, and it could be the last straw for one of our planet’s most endangered marine mammals,” Olivera said in the press release.
For now, the decision has been made, and conservationists are urging CITES to closely follow the first legal exports of this species in four decades.
Banner Image: A dead vaquita floats in the ocean. Image by Robbie Newby for Sea Shepherd.
This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on April 7, 2022.