Vaquita, IUCN

Illegal fish bladder trade could sound the death knell for the last 10 vaquita porpoises

A thriving online illegal trade in the swim bladders of endangered totoaba fish is helping to drive the vaquita porpoise to the brink of extinction.

Vaquita are the most endangered marine mammal on the planet and exist only in a small area of Mexico’s Gulf of California. It is estimated as few as 10 individuals remain, with the population devastated in the past decade as a result of being caught in illegal gillnets set to capture totoabas.

Totoaba swim bladders – known as maws – are in high demand in China and, increasingly, in other Asian countries as a symbol of wealth and for their purported, but unproven, medicinal value.

In our new report On Borrowed Time – The ongoing illegal totoaba trade driving the critically endangered vaquita to extinction, EIA reveals that the illegal maw trade now appears to be strong and flourishing on social media.

The report reveals that the market in China for dried totoaba maws on popular social media channels remains active and has increased significantly on WeChat. In 2023, the activity and quantities of totoaba maws advertised on WeChat and, by extension, in China exceeded those of previous years, indicating that wildlife traffickers have resumed business as usual since the COVID-19 pandemic.

EIA Senior Ocean Campaigner Sarah Dolman said: “Our investigation suggests a thriving and opportunistic network of traders and consumers willing to participate in the illegal trading of totoaba maws.

“Despite this, enforcement action, as measured by the number of seizures of totoaba maws recorded in EIA’s Global Environmental Crime Tracker, declined significantly in 2023.

“Only urgent, strategic and collaborative efforts to end the illegal totoaba maw trade will give the critically endangered vaquita a chance to survive and recover.”

The International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA) has tracked the decline of the vaquita population from about 567 individuals in 1997 to about 10 individuals now.

Dried totoaba maw on sale in China (c) EIA

On Borrowed Time calls for:

  • swift action by social media companies to remove advertisements for totoaba products from online platforms
  • focused political pressure on source, transit and end-destination countries – including Mexico, China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and the US – to increase efforts to dismantle the supply chain and end illegal totoaba trade
  • transnational investigations resulting in prosecutions with appropriate penalties to deter repeat offences and dismantling of criminal syndicates responsible for the totoaba trade
  • the Secretariat to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to undertake an urgent compliance mission to Mexico, as well as missions to China and other countries with totoaba markets, to assess the efficacy of actions to combat the illegal totoaba trade.