LONDON, 20 September 2016 (EIA) – With distinctive markings around its mouth and eyes, the vaquita is one of the world’s most iconic marine mammal species – but with fewer than 60 left, it is doomed to extinction in the very near future unless immediate and meaningful action is taken.
The vaquita’s plight as the world’s most endangered cetacean species is not due to direct threats such as hunting. Instead, its plummeting numbers are due to indiscriminate killing in illegal gillnets used to poach critically endangered totoaba fish.
Both species are found in only one place in the world, Mexico’s Gulf of California. Although both are protected and all international trade in totoaba has been banned since 1977, the demand from consumers in Hong Kong and mainland China has maintained a relentless pressure through poaching and illegal trade.
The new report, Collateral Damage [pdf], released today by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), paints the most comprehensive picture yet of the clandestine market for the dried swim bladders, or “maw”, of the totoaba and its appalling impact on the vaquita.
Dried totoaba swim bladders are known in the trade as “money maw” and “aquatic cocaine” for the staggeringly high sums they command; even though a recent glut on the market deflated prices, large high-quality specimens can still fetch more than $50,000 each. The maws are a prized ingredient in Chinese traditional medicine for their alleged benefits in treating circulatory and skin problems.
EIA has monitored the market for fish maw products since April 2015, including online trading, and conducted a series of undercover investigations in Hong Kong and southern China.
Posing as fish maw investors, EIA investigators identified the coastal town of Shantou, in China’s Guangdong Province, as the centre of the maw trade; 90 per cent of shops in the Jinping market are run by members of the Shantou Swim Bladder and Dried Seafood Association and specialise in the wholesale distribution of fish maws while also supplying other key trading centres such as Guangzhou city.
EIA’s investigations found that traders in Guangzhou have become more wary as a result of local enforcement efforts; in May 2015, EIA documented hundreds of totoaba maws on open on sale in Guangzhou’s Qingping market but none just seven months later, although some traders still offered totoaba maw under the counter. In contrast, totoaba maws were on open sale in Shantou in June 2016.
“There have been significant efforts to crack down on illegal fishing for totoaba and remove gillnets from the range of the vaquita,” said Clare Perry, Head of EIA’s Oceans Campaign. “But these efforts will not save the vaquita without coordinated international action to eliminate the illegal trade in totoaba, particularly in the main consumer market in China.”
The 17th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) later this month presents a major opportunity to agree a series of time-bound actions to strengthen international cooperation to eliminate illegal totoaba trade, with Mexico, China, and the US (a transit country) playing key roles.
Perry added: “China has committed to reduce the impact of illegal wildlife trade, including specifically the trade in totoaba, and we urgently need to see these commitments turned into action. We are running out of time to prevent the extinction of a species.”
Collateral Damage concludes with a series of recommendations for China to improve enforcement against the illegal totoaba trade and reduce demand, as well as urging Mexico to enact a permanent fishing ban throughout the entire range of the vaquita.