A recent survey by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) of marine product sellers in southern China and Hong Kong revealed a continuing illegal trade in a banned fish species which, if left unchecked, will lead to the extinction of the vaquita – the world’s most endangered marine mammal.

The vaquita is a small porpoise found only in the waters of the northern Gulf of California, off the coast of Mexico. In 1997, its population was estimated at 567 but by 2014 it had plummeted to just 97 animals due to fishery bycatch.

Recent evidence based on acoustic surveys suggests a 42 per cent decline in the vaquita population in 2013-14. This alarming drop is due to the resurgence of illegal gillnet fishing targeting totoaba fish, the swim bladders of which are highly sought in Hong Kong and southern mainland China.

International trade in totoaba fish has been banned under a global convention since 1977, yet black market trade persists. Its dried swim bladder, known as fish maw, is used in foods such as soups for its supposed health benefits. There are around 34 different types of fish maw but totoaba is one of the most highly prized and expensive and is referred to as “golden coin” maw in the trade.

Vaquita (PD)

In May 2015, EIA conducted a survey of 23 fish maw retailers in Hong Kong and Guangzhou, China, as well as online research to ascertain the availability of illegal totoaba products on the market. The results show that illegal trade continues to supply a relatively small group of entrenched consumers, indicating a failure by enforcement agencies to curb the smuggling and sale.

In Guangzhou, EIA found “golden coin” maw openly on sale in seven of the 12 shops surveyed. Generally, traders were aware that totoaba sales are illegal, knew the fish are only found in Mexico and claimed that smuggling the contraband between Hong Kong and mainland China is easy with customs agencies not routinely inspecting fish maw consignments.

Hong Kong traders were more guarded, with only two shops displaying totoaba maw, but prices were found to be higher than on the mainland. Despite this, the main buyers were found to be mainland Chinese due to the perceived higher quality of supplies from Hong Kong and the higher possibility of fakes in Guangzhou.

Online research conducted by EIA identified numerous platforms for trade in fish maw, with significant interest in totoaba maw among consumers. Some of these platforms were actively offering fish maw, including totoaba, for sale. A sense of the global nature of the trade was provided by analysis of Facebook pages connecting fish maw traders and buyers from South America, Mexico, the US and Asia.

EIA’s survey also uncovered a fall in the market price for totoaba maw since 2012 due to a spike in illegal trade causing oversupply in the market. While totoaba prices remain high compared with other fish maws, the decline of as much as 75 per cent from the record prices of a few years ago has led to stockpiling by traders hoping to push the price back up. One trader also spoke of a core group of “loyal” totoaba consumers who use the maw on a daily basis and were using the price drop to stock up.

The plight of the vaquita has recently gained international attention. Mexico has implemented an emergency two-year gillnet fishing ban throughout the vaquita range. US agencies in southern California, which is a hub for totoaba maws smuggled from neighbouring Mexico en route to China, have made a series of seizures and prosecutions.

However, as EIA’s survey shows, the enforcement response in the main markets of Hong Kong and China remains inadequate.

Clare Perry, Team Leader of EIA’s Oceans Campaign, said:

The future survival of the vaquita rests in the hands of a relatively small number of Chinese consumers of totoaba maw. While this lucrative market continues, vaquita will inevitably die in illegal fishing nets and dwindle to extinction.

“Customs and other enforcement agencies in China need to step up their efforts to halt the illegal totoaba trade.”

EIA is calling for online retail platforms in China to stop selling totoaba maw, for increased surveillance of marine products markets in Hong Kong and Guangzhou and for customs agencies to prioritise interception of contraband fish maw.

The only case of an aquatic marine species becoming extinct since the 1950s is the baiji or Chinese river dolphin; found only in China’s Yangtze River, the species was declared functionally extinct in 2006.

China now has a vital role to play in ensuring that the vaquita does not go the same way.

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