People, Environment

Greed Puts Rare Fish Species at Risk

Greed Puts Rare Fish Species at RiskGreed Puts Rare Fish Species at Risk

An illegal trade in the swim bladder of the rare totoabas has placed both these fish and the world’s smallest and rarest marine mammal — the vaquita — at risk of extinction, a report by the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has revealed.

Both species are critically endangered, and found only in the Gulf of California.

Dried swim bladders of totoabas — organs that help fish float — have been dubbed “aquatic cocaine” due to the high prices they fetch mainly in Chinese markets. For every kilogram of totoaba swim bladders sold, fishermen reportedly receive up to $8,500 in the local black market, according to the report.

This demand for swim bladders (also called “maw”), for unproven medicinal benefits, is threatening not just the rare totoabas, but also the vaquita, which get caught illegally in nets used to catch totoabas, Mongabay reported.

In fact, fewer than 100 vaquitas remain in the Gulf of California, and conservationists estimate that if the current rate of decline continues, vaquitas could become extinct by 2018.

“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,” Clare Perry, Team Leader of EIA’s Oceans Campaign, said in a statement.

Once abundant in the waters of Gulf of California, totoabas, which can grow more than two meters in length and weigh around 100 kilograms, declined rapidly due to habitat degradation, overfishing, bycatch and illegal fishing.

 These large-sized fishes are particularly vulnerable to overfishing because of their long life-spans and slow reproduction.

To protect the rare totoabas, trade in these fishes, or any of their parts, is illegal under both Mexican and US law. To protect the vaquitas, Mexico has also implemented a two-year ban on gillnet fishing — a major cause of vaquita entanglement and death — throughout the vaquita range.

Despite these laws, poachers continue to use gillnets to capture totoabas, the report notes.

EIA’s investigation revealed that the spike in illegal trade in totoaba had resulted in a 60%-80% decline in the market price for totoaba maw since 2012.

EIA also identified numerous online platforms, such as Facebook, that trade in fish maw.  Many users even post information on the best routes to smuggle totoabas into Hong Kong and China.