|January 12, 2016|
China's craze for 'aquatic cocaine' is pushing two species into oblivion
|Affluent Chinese are putting two Mexican species at risk due to demand for dried swim bladders. But will this year's Cites meeting on the wildlife trade force a crackdown? |
Many would probably find the idea of consuming a fish's swim bladder unappetizing. More still would be unwilling to part with £2,000 for such a bladder, otherwise known as a maw. But China's demand for swim bladders from a giant Mexican fish -- the totoaba -- is not only putting it at risk, but also the world's smallest porpoise, the vaquita ("little cow" in Spanish). Today, there are fewer than 100 vaquitas in the world, and no one knows how many totoaba are left. Given the dire state of these two species, conservationists hope that a meeting of the international convention on endangered species (Cites) in Geneva this week will take strong action.
"The vaquita's extinction clock stands at one minute to midnight and the species is being pushed into oblivion by the demand of a relatively small number of Chinese consumers of totoaba maw," said Clare Perry, the team leader of the Environmental Investigation Agency's (EIA) oceans campaign.
The EIA has just released a new report on the trade that finds totoaba swim bladders are still openly sold in Guangzhou and Hong Kong as well as online. The maws have been dubbed "aquatic cocaine" due to prices that currently range from £1,750 to £6,500 -- even after prices dropped 60-80% in the last two years, according to the EIA.
Perry said that the swim bladders are largely bought by wealthy Chinese as "collection items or gifts" and even as financial investments.
Swim bladders are a special organ in some fish that controls their buoyancy like ballast in a ship. Traditional Chinese medicine claim that swim bladders from the fish family, Sciaenidate (including totoaba), are curatives for variety of ailments. However, scientific research has yet to find any health benefits from consuming the gas-filled bladder.
But what does the illegal trade in totoaba swim bladders have to do with vaquitas? Fishermen use gillnets to catch totoaba, which, unintentionally, entrap vaquita too. When caught, vaquitas suffocate and drown. In 1997, conservationists estimated a total population of 567 vaquitas. Last year, they detected only 97 individuals. The entire decline has been laid at the feet of gillnet fishing in the Gulf of California for shrimp, fish and shark -- and increasingly totoaba.
It is "very clear" how to save the vaquita, said Perry, "all gillnets have to be permanently removed from the entire range of the species".
Vaquitas (Phocoena sinus) are not just the world's smallest cetacean (a family that includes dolphins, whales and porpoises), but they also have the smallest range of any marine mammal. Only found in the northernmost section of the Gulf of California, vaquita inhabit about 2,300 square kilometres. Known for being elusive and camera-shy, vaquita sport special facial markings that have been be compared to pandas. Conservationists say vaquitas have the unfortunate distinction of being the most endangered marine mammal on the planet.
After decades of warnings from conservationists, Mexico finally took significant action to save the vaquita last April when the country's president, Enrique Peña Nieto, imposed a two-year ban on gillnet fishing in the vaquita's habitat. The ban includes financial help for impacted fishermen and coordination with the Mexican navy to police the region.
However, experts fear that tough action may have come too late. According to the EIA, the high price for totoaba -- and the ongoing lax response by China -- could push some criminals to continue fishing despite the ban.
Although less well-known (and publicised) by conservationists than the vaquita, totoabas (Totoaba macdonaldi) are astounding in their own right. A long-lived totoaba can reach two metres long and weigh over 90 kilograms. Like the vaquita, adult totoaba are only found in the Gulf of California but they spawn in the Colorado river delta. Although listed as critically endangered by the IUCN red list, no one has surveyed the totoaba for over 35 years.
In evolutionary terms, the totoaba is quite distinct: it is the only species in its genus and the largest fish in the family of Sciaenidae, a fish family known for making croaking sounds due to those swim bladders -- which have also become their downfall.
Through undercover investigations of shops in Guangzhou and Hong Kong, the EIA team found dried totoaba maws sold openly in eight shops, despite being illegal. The team reported that shopkeepers in Guangzhou were particularly brazen.
"Generally, traders were aware that totoaba sale is 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," reads the report, entitled Dual Extinction.
Given the recent drop in price, EIA investigators speculate that illegal traders may be holding on to stocks of totoaba maw in order to raise prices in the near term. The trade in maw has not only affected totoaba, but other fish as well. For hundreds of years, the trade focused on the local Chinese bahaba (Bahaba taipingensis) -- also in the Sciaenidae family -- but, as that fish neared extinction, trade expanded to the totoaba and other species.
In order to prevent the extinction of the vaquita -- and the totoaba -- the EIA says that Cites must act at its meeting in Geneva.
"Cites needs to send a very clear message that the illegal trade in totoaba fish maw is a serious problem that is impacting not just one, but two endangered species, and adopt a series of recommendations to quickly strengthen enforcement efforts," said Perry, who noted that enforcement was most needed in mainland China and Hong Kong.
The report also notes that additional efforts should focus on tackling illegal sellers online. Trade in illegal wildlife has boomed online over the past decade -- including on e-commerce and social media sites -- but such sites are often slow to cut dealers off.
"The vaquita and totoaba are both fully protected under national law as well as internationally through their Cites Appendix I listings," said Perry, "but such safeguards are worthless without urgent intervention on the ground to enforce them."