‘Aquatic Cocaine’ Trade Driving World’s Smallest Porpoise to Extinction
By Emily Botsford, ADMCF Environment Programme
The dried seafood trade is prevalent in Hong Kong, with many streets, and indeed a neighborhood, Sheung Wan, dedicated to this trade. Hidden amongst the scallops, abalone and shark fin, are the dried swim bladders (fish maw) of the totoaba, a product that is illegal to trade. Yet its continued consumption is leading to the extinction of not one, but two marine species.
Totoaba is a large fish (>2m) found only in the Gulf of California and belongs to the croaker family. It is long-lived and takes seven years to be reproductively mature, thus making it vulnerable to overfishing. In 1975, the fishing of totoaba was banned due to declining populations and in 1977, it was placed on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Appendix I[i], thus banning international trade. Totoaba also is listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List as Critically Endangered[ii], and has been since 1996.
Over exploitation of the Totoaba has been driven by demand in China for its swim bladder, a product so highly valued that it has become known as ‘aquatic cocaine’. Unfortunately, this demand remains high, and fishermen continue to illegally target this prized fish in return for up to USD8500/kg for the bladders on the black market[iii]. The larger maws are often bought as investment, demonstrating the speculative nature of this market.
Fish maw is highly valued in China because of its supposed medicinal effects, although there is little scientific evidence to support this. There are around 34 types of fish maw on the market in China, but the most highly valued, largely due to its rarity, is the totoaba. Its swim bladder is believed to nourish the kidneys and liver, stop bleeding, and improve skin condition and circulation[iv].
Poachers fishing for totoaba use gillnets (banned in the upper Gulf of California in 2016) left out at sea for several days or even abandoned altogether once the catch is in. This practice also has had serious impact on the world’s smallest porpoise, the vaquita. The vaquita has no commercial value and yet they too are Critically Endangered[v] as a result of being caught in the gillnets designed to poach totoaba.
The disappearance of both species represents a sad side of Traditional Chinese Medicine and the rise of affluence in China. There are now only about 60 vaquita left in the wild and experts have predicted that the species will become extinct by 2018 unless its bycatch is eliminated immediately[vi]. Given the continued illegal fishing of totoaba and the ghost fishing by abandoned nets, this seems unlikely to occur.
Even though the totoaba trade is illegal, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has found its maws openly on sale in China’s southern provinces[vii]. A single company even boasted a stock of 700. That these sellers openly flout the law shows how little enforcement is taking place.
As a global trade hub, a significant proportion of the illegal totoaba maws also come through and into Hong Kong, where traders are seemingly more vigilant than their Mainland counterparts, despite the trade being underground.
From many accounts, we believe the trade is perpetrated by organized criminal networks and the Hong Kong Government must acknowledge responsibility. We urge Hong Kong to investigate totoaba smuggling or be held accountable for its role in the extinction of the two species.
At the recent CITES conference in Johannesburg, (CoP17), countries pledged to do more to stop the illegal totoaba trade in an effort to prevent the vaquita’s extinction through increased enforcement and reporting. Though this is a positive step, the survival of the vaquita looks grim without China eradicating demand; something that will not happen overnight and, for the vaquita, will most likely happen too late.
Photo: Richard Herrmann/Minden Pictu via Corbis