The dried swim bladders of the totoaba have an average price of $20,000 per kilogram, causing them to be dubbed “aquatic cocaine”. Photo: Anthony Wallace / AFP / Getty Images

By Damian Carrington
16 May 2017

(The Guardian) – The world’s rarest marine mammal is on the verge of extinction due to the continuing illegal demand in China for a valuable fish organ, an undercover investigation has revealed.

There are no more than 30 vaquita – a five-foot porpoise – left in the northern Gulf of California today and they could be extinct within months, conservationists have warned. The population has been all but eradicated by pirate fishermen catching the large totoaba fish and killing the vaquita in the process.

The totoaba, which is itself highly endangered, is caught for its swim bladders which are smuggled to China for sale on the black market. Undercover investigators found the swim bladders, called maws, for sale in Shantou in Guandong province, at an average price of $20,000 per kilogram. The cost has led to the maws being dubbed “aquatic cocaine”.

“The demand is still strong and stable – it is not going down – and prices are climbing again,” said Andrea Crosta, from the Elephant Action League, an intelligence-led group now targeting all wildlife crime and which conducted the totoaba investigation.

“Because it is very expensive, it remains a product for wealthy people,” he said. “The law enforcement is very weak because it is not top priority and probably because it involves rich and powerful people.”

One trader in the illegal maws told the investigators: “When the government comes to check, they call and inform us earlier and we will hide them when they come.” However, the trade is less open than it once was. Chinese buyers of maws prefer those from domestic waters but these are exceedingly rare now, having been intensively fished for many decades. […]

“Time is rapidly running out for the vaquita – we could tragically lose [it] in a matter of months,” said WWF’s Chris Gee. “The last hope for the species is the Mexican government immediately putting in place and properly enforcing a permanent ban.” [more]

Chinese appetite for totoaba fish bladder kills off rare porpoise

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