- The dried swim bladders, or “maw,” of totoaba, an endangered fish found in the Gulf of California in northern Mexico, are being increasingly trafficked on digital platforms, according to a report from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).
- The demand for totoaba has impacted other animals that get caught in the same gillnets, most notably the vaquita, the smallest porpoise in the world.
- EIA’s investigation found an increase in the number of swim bladders sold online and on some social media platforms like WeChat, a Chinese texting and cash payments app.
MEXICO CITY — The trafficking of valuable fish bladders found in Mexico appears to be on the rise online and on social media, and it’s having a ripple effect on other endangered species in the region.
Dried swim bladders, or “maw,” of totoaba, an endangered fish found in the Gulf of California in northern Mexico, are being increasingly trafficked on digital platforms, according to a report from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an environmental NGO. The demand for totoaba has impacted other animals that get caught in the same gillnets, most notably vaquitas, the smallest porpoise in the world.
“The conservation impact of ongoing illegal totoaba fishing on critically endangered vaquitas is clear,” the report said. “The species will simply not survive without the elimination of the illegal trade in totoaba.”
Totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi) swim bladders are a delicacy in China because of their use in traditional medicines and cosmetics, and can go for thousands of dollars per kilogram. Catching them requires using illegal gillnets that often pull up the endemic vaquita (Phocoena sinus), whose population numbers have dwindled to just 10 individuals, according to the report. In the late 1990s, the population was at 567.
EIA’s investigation found an increase in the number of swim bladders online. Since 2020, there have been over 230 sold over the internet, the report said.
The number of posts surged with the easing of Covid-19 pandemic restrictions, such as China’s ban on the trade and consumption of wildlife. Between 2021 and 2022, the number of postings on WeChat, a Chinese app for texting and cash payments, more than tripled. And between 2022 and 2023, they quintupled.
“If you manage to get access to closed WeChat groups, you’ll find a lot of marine products, including totoaba,” said Andrea Crosta, executive director and co-founder of Earth League International, an intelligence group that investigates the trafficking of flora and fauna. “…It’s very difficult for law enforcement agencies to control and infiltrate.”
Most swim bladders aren’t bought and sold online through individual postings, Crosta said about the report, which his organization wasn’t involved with. Instead, they move between sophisticated trafficking groups and wholesalers, often in bulk shipments of several hundred bladders.
Nevertheless, the increasing presence of totoaba online suggests that the demand in China hasn’t waned, and that law enforcement agencies need to do a better job of combatting all methods of buying and selling swim bladders, EIA’s report said.
Mexico last year published a Compliance Action Plan aimed at better combatting illegal fishing with the specific goal of protecting the vaquita. The plan includes monitoring embarkations, strengthening intelligence and implementing an alternative fishing gear program to replace gillnets.
The U.S., having expressed concern about Mexico’s failure to uphold CITES, said that it would be monitoring the implementation of the plan. The International Whaling Commission, an intergovernmental body managing the conservation of whales, also issued its first-ever extinction alert to bring more attention to the vaquita.
In its report, EIA called on social media companies to remove advertisements for totoaba products and for countries with a demand for totoaba to increase coordination efforts in investigating, seizing and prosecuting traffickers.
“Only urgent, strategic and collaborative efforts to end the illegal totoaba maw trade will give the critically endangered vaquita a chance to survive and recover,” EIA said in a press release.
Banner image: A vaquita porpoise in the Gulf of California. (Photo courtesy of Paula Olson / NOAA)
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