Chinese appetite for fish maw drives ‘panda of the sea’ to brink of extinction, and fuels illegal trade from Mexico to China
Wildlife crime group digs deep into illegal trade through Hong Kong and other Asian ports in the maw of the endangered totoaba fish, a trade that has doomed the vaquita, world’s smallest porpoise, to almost inevitable extinction.
Its name in Spanish means “little cow” but it’s also been called the “panda of the sea” because of the black rings around its eyes. It is the world’s smallest porpoise – and the most endangered marine mammal on the planet, thanks to Chinese and other East Asian diners’ appetite for part of an endangered fish that swims in the same waters off Mexico.
Sold as fish maw, the swim bladder of the totoaba – a gas-filled organ that helps control the fish’s buoyancy – is prized for its supposed medicinal qualities, and worth more than gold on the black market. The fish are caught using illegal vertical gillnets, which also trap the vaquita, and trade in their bladders is run by Mexican drug cartels and Chinese crime gangs. Hong Kong is a centre of that trade, according to a report, Operation Fake Gold, released by wildlife crime investigation organisation the Elephant Action League (EAL).
Vaquita numbers in the Sea of Cortez, in the Gulf of California off Mexico’s west coast, where its habitat is ostensibly a protected marine reserve, have plunged by 90 per cent since 2011, global conservation organisation WWF says. The porpoise, which grows to 1.5 metres and weighs a little over 40kg, is endemic to the gulf – meaning it lives nowhere else – as is the totoaba.
“Nobody knows exactly how many [vaquita] are left,” says Hong Kong-based Gary Stokes, Asia director for conservation group Sea Shepherd.
“Anywhere between 12 and 30 is the population estimate. Numbers have been diminishing for the past 20-30 years … there’s little hope for the species’ survival.”
Fishermen earn more in one night for catching a few totoabas than they can otherwise earn in a year, the EAL report says.
“Fishermen from all over Mexico are flocking to that Gulf – it’s a gold rush. With one swim bladder worth US$25,000, it’s no wonder demand is out of control,” says Stokes. Sea Shepherd runs Operation Milagro IV in defence of the vaquita. The operation involves patrolling the waters of the marine reserve, detecting and retrieving illegal nets and alerting the Mexican Navy to illegal poachers. Last year alone its crews confiscated illegal nets whose combined length ran to more than 77km (48 miles).
Like the vaquita, the totoaba is critically endangered. On the black market its maw fetches US$46 per gram, the EAL report says – more than the black market price for gold of about US$40 per gram. Called buche in Mexico, totoaba maw’s nickname is “cocaine of the sea”.
Under CITES, an international treaty to protect endangered plants and animals, the totoaba, along with the rhinoceros (whose horn is prized in East Asia) and the tiger are listed in its Appendix 1 comprising the most endangered species.
The EAL operation claims to have identified “totoaba cartels” spearheaded by three Mexicans, who sell swim bladders to Chinese businessmen in Mexico. The supply chain stretches from fishing villages such as San Felipe on the coast of Baja California state, where totoaba are caught and their maws extracted, to the cities of Tijuana and Mexicali, through which maws are smuggled to South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong, often following the same routes used for drug trafficking.
The EAL report says there are a large number of totoaba maw importers in Hong Kong. “These importers then sell the maws, along with many other seafood products, to wholesalers in mainland China, primarily in Guangdong province,” it says. The wholesale trade in fish maws is centred on the cities of Shantou and Nanao in Guangdong.
Stokes says the report is entirely plausible. “Moving millions of dollars worth of hard-to-identify [illegal] swim bladders is easier than moving suitcases crammed with cash,” he says, citing a case in January when officers of Hong Kong’s Customs and Excise Department seized about 28kg of illegal totoaba swim bladders worth about US$1.4 million during a bust at Hong Kong’s airport.
Two Chinese nationals were arrested. Stokes says both men had been living in Mexico – one owned a restaurant, the other was its cook. The pair flew halfway around the world, from Mexico via South Korea to Hong Kong, with two suitcases full of swim bladders. “They didn’t even pack underwear,” he says.
Both men pleaded guilty, thereby automatically reducing their sentences by a third. Both claimed they didn’t know the dried seafood was illegal.
Stokes says their lenient sentences – one man got 10 weeks in prison, the other 14 weeks – show prosecutors and judges do not take seriously enough the illegal trade in wild animals and their body parts, the fourth most lucrative global criminal enterprise after the smuggling of illegal drugs and arms, and human trafficking.
In 2016, the value of wildlife crime, including illegal logging and fishing, was put at between US$91 billion and US$258 billion, up from its estimated value in 2014 of US$70 billion to US$213 billion, according to a report by the United Nations Environment Programme and Interpol.
“The penalties don’t match the crimes. And species then become the victims of a lax legal system,” Stokes says.
As well as the imposition of harsher penalties globally for wildlife crimes, Stokes wants better training for Hong Kong customs officials and staff of the city’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, “so they can better identify the many items on the illegal wildlife list”.
Stokes says illegal fish maw can be identified by two tubelike tentacles attached to each bladder, unlike the legal variety imported from Africa and on sale in many dried seafood markets in the city’s Sheung Wan neighbourhood, which does not have tentacles.
“It’s been said many times that Hong Kong is a hub, a gateway for the illegal wildlife trade. Customs officials are making more and more illegal wildlife busts, so it makes sense for them to know what to look for. I know they are trying their best, but in my eyes more can be done,” Stokes says. “In fact, globally law enforcement needs more training about wildlife crimes.”
Sea Shepherd is helping provide such training through its law firm, Sea Shepherd Legal.
“Hong Kong’s judiciary needs a kick up the a***. It’s the judges that need to be better informed about the illegal wildlife trade so they can hand out harsher sentences,” Stokes says. “They can’t keep basing sentences on previous cases. The system needs to get tough and set examples.
“The judge for the smuggling case, he had no idea what a totoaba or vaquita were.”
Rare good news came last week when an international trade court judge in the United States ordered the administration of President Donald Trump to ban the sale of all seafood harvested using gillnets in the northern part of the Gulf of California. Gillnets were banned in 2015, but their use continues in the part of the gulf that is the habitat of the vaquita and totoaba.
Stokes says education is also key, and debunking myths about the powers associated with some traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) ingredients would be a good start.
In the case of fish maw, TCM practitioners say it improves fertility, and relieves circulatory and skin problems, although there’s no scientific evidence to support these claims.
“The swim bladder, along with shark fin, sea cucumber and abalone, is sadly considered one of the four treasures of the sea, which is why they are in high demand. And all because of unfounded TCM claims … it’s a load of BS,” Stokes says.
He says wealthy Chinese are feeding demand by buying totoaba swim bladders as collectibles or as gifts. A worrying new trend is fish maw being bought as a long-term financial investment.
“The price increases as it matures – you buy one now and in 10 years the price will double. Kind of like when people invest in fine wines,” Stokes says.
Celebrity power has been harnessed to raise awareness of the vaquita’s plight. Chinese pianist Lang Lang is working with green group WildAid, while Hollywood A-lister Leonardo DiCaprio is using his star power by appearing in a documentary, Vaquita – Sea of Ghosts.
A post shared by Leonardo DiCaprio (@leonardodicaprio) on Jul 8, 2018 at 1:38pm PDT
According to Variety, the film follows the “sometimes violent conflict” between drug cartels in Mexico and Chinese crime gangs, and that between the Mexican government, US Navy, FBI, and Sea Shepherd. It is due out later this year.
Stokes has previously helped another documentary crew shine a light on the fish bladder trade and the vaquita’s plight. “The crew were keen to film illegal fish maw being sold in Hong Kong, in the backstreets of Sheung Wan, but it’s not that easy. Trading doesn’t happen in the open, it’s all back-door trading with trusted buyers,” he says.
Stokes sent the film crew to Macau.
“There’s no heat there from activists like here in Hong Kong. They’re more relaxed. In one shop, the film crew asked to buy a totoaba swim bladder for a friend in Singapore. The shop assistant said he had to speak to his boss, before quoting HK$170,000 (US$21,700) for 350g.”
Damián Martínez Tagüeña, the consul general of Mexico in Hong Kong, has long been raising awareness about the plight of the vaquita. He says curbing demand for totoaba maw is a priority.
“We’ve worked with local partners to bring attention to this issue, seeking to curb the demand for totoaba fish maw in the south China region.”
He says consumer awareness is also vital.
“Consumers need to be aware of the direct link between the market for certain types of highly prized maw and the threat to the vaquita and totoaba … The public must know that the totoaba trade is illegal, and that wildlife trafficking is a serious form of transnational organised crime,” Martínez.
Still, it looks unlikely the nexus between government agencies, fishermen, poachers, and Mexican and Chinese traffickers will be unravelled in time to save the vaquita from extinction.