‘More lucrative than cocaine’: Hong Kong retailers cashing in on endangered fish maw, Greenpeace says

Poaching of totoaba for the Hong Kong market is increasing the risk a critically endangered marine mammal will die out, Greenpeace says

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 May, 2015, 5:09pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 May, 2015, 5:32am

More than a dozen seafood vendors are openly selling the dried swim bladders of a critically endangered species of fish, which is being smuggled into the city effortlessly from North America, a Greenpeace probe has found.

While fish bladder, also known as maw, is commonly sold in Hong Kong, totoaba bladders are a more highly prized delicacy, especially on the mainland, where they fetch up to HK$1 million per kg.

But international trade in the totoaba is banned. And poaching of totoaba is also helping drive the extinction of a rare marine mammal, the vaquita, which has a tendency to get stuck in gillnets set for totoaba, which live in the same area, the international conservation group says.

Both species are indigenous to Mexico's Gulf of California.

Recent reports estimate fewer than 100 vaquitas - a rare type of porpoise - are left in the wild. The species is expected to be wiped out by 2018 if drastic steps are not taken immediately.

"The city has become a hub for illegal wildlife trade, with devastating results as far away as Mexico for the nearly extinct vaquita," Greenpeace East Asia programme manager Gloria Chang Wan-ki said.

"If nothing is done now, they will … potentially follow the Yangtze river dolphin into oblivion and become the second species of whale, dolphin or porpoise driven to extinction in human history," she said, referring to a species declared extinct in 2006.

Between February and last month, Greenpeace checked out 70 dried seafood retailers in Sheung Wan and found at least 13 selling totoaba bladder.

Most of those vendors showed photographs of their stocks to the undercover shoppers, but seven stores were able to present real samples on their premises. Many offered to source maw directly from Mexico, with at least one vendor even offering to help smuggle a specimen to mainland China for an additional fee of HK$2,000.

Totoaba fisheries were closed by Mexico in 1975. Trade is now prohibited under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or Cites.

Gangs in northern Mexico were the ones sourcing the totoaba, said Silvia Diaz Perez of Greenpeace Mexico. "If you look at the price of swim bladder, it is even more lucrative than cocaine," she said.

And in Hong Kong, border controls are lax, according to Greenpeace tests.

A staff member, carrying a sample of maw from a legal specimen at Chek Lap Kok airport, was "waved through without hassle". The group was also able to post packages containing fish bladder from overseas to Hong Kong without any problems.

"Customs officers do not think for a second that dried bladder could come from an endangered species," Chang said.

She urged the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department to step up controls.

A spokesman for the department said checks on shops were made from "time to time", but it would step up inspections. A batch of suspicious fish bladder samples were seized from a shop in Sheung Wan last month but there had been no prosecutions.

The customs department said it would work to "further improve the alertness" of officers. In the past two years there had been two seizures of totoaba bladder, the department said.