Vaquita porpoise in the wild

Illegal fish trade pushes critically endangered vaquita to extinction


A recent survey by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) of marine product sellers in southern China and Hong Kong revealed a continuing illegal trade in a banned fish species which, if left unchecked, will lead to the extinction of the vaquita – the world’s most endangered marine mammal.

The vaquita is a small porpoise found only in the waters of the northern Gulf of California, off the coast of Mexico. In 1997, its population was estimated at 567 but by 2014 it had plummeted to just 97 animals due to fishery bycatch.

Vaquita and totoaba (c) NOAA Fisheries

Vaquita and totoaba (c) NOAA Fisheries

Evidence based on acoustic surveys suggests a 42 per cent decline in the vaquita population in 2013-14. This alarming drop is due to the resurgence of illegal gillnet fishing targeting totoaba fish, the swim bladders of which are highly sought in Hong Kong and southern mainland China.

International trade in totoaba fish has been banned under a global convention since 1977, yet black market trade persists. Its dried swim bladder, known as fish maw, is used in foods such as soups for its supposed health benefits. There are around 34 different types of fish maw but totoaba is one of the most highly prized and expensive and is referred to as “golden coin” maw in the trade.

In May 2015, EIA conducted a survey of 23 fish maw retailers in Hong Kong and Guangzhou, China, as well as online research to ascertain the availability of illegal totoaba products on the market. The results show that illegal trade continues to supply a relatively small group of entrenched consumers, indicating a failure by enforcement agencies to curb the smuggling and sale.

In Guangzhou, EIA found “golden coin” maw openly on sale in seven of the 12 shops surveyed. Generally, traders were aware that totoaba sales are illegal, knew the fish are only found in Mexico and claimed that smuggling the contraband between Hong Kong and mainland China is easy with customs agencies not routinely inspecting fish maw consignments.

Totoaba maws openly on sale in Guangzhou, China (c) EIA

Totoaba maws openly on sale in Guangzhou, China (c) EIA

Hong Kong traders were more guarded, with only two shops displaying totoaba maw, but prices were found to be higher than on the mainland. Despite this, the main buyers were found to be mainland Chinese due to the perceived higher quality of supplies from Hong Kong and the higher possibility of fakes in Guangzhou.

Online research conducted by EIA identified numerous platforms for trade in fish maw, with significant interest in totoaba maw among consumers. Some of these platforms were actively offering fish maw, including totoaba, for sale. A sense of the global nature of the trade was provided by analysis of Facebook pages connecting fish maw traders and buyers from South America, Mexico, the US and Asia.

Gillnets are the primary cause of Vaquita mortality in the upper gulf of california, Mexico.

Gillnet fishing (c) Chris Johnson

EIA’s survey also uncovered a fall in the market price for totoaba maw since 2012 due to a spike in illegal trade causing oversupply in the market. While totoaba prices remain high compared with other fish maws, the decline of as much as 75 per cent from the record prices of a few years ago has led to stockpiling by traders hoping to push the price back up. One trader also spoke of a core group of “loyal” totoaba consumers who use the maw on a daily basis and were using the price drop to stock up.

The plight of the vaquita has recently gained international attention. Mexico has implemented an emergency two-year gillnet fishing ban throughout the vaquita range. US agencies in southern California, which is a hub for totoaba maws smuggled from neighbouring Mexico en route to China, have made a series of seizures and prosecutions.

This 6-9 year old maw was being sold for 80,000 RMB, approximately £8,250, China (c) EIA

Prices for totoaba maws depend on a number of criteria including size, sex, weight and age. This 6-9 year old maw was being sold for 80,000 RMB (approximately £8,250); the same trader had hundreds of younger totoaba maws selling for 1/10th of the price (c) EIA

However, as EIA’s survey shows, the enforcement response in the main markets of Hong Kong and China remains inadequate.

Clare Perry, Team Leader of EIA’s Oceans Campaign, said: “The future survival of the vaquita rests in the hands of a relatively small number of Chinese consumers of totoaba maw. While this lucrative market continues, vaquita will inevitably die in illegal fishing nets and dwindle to extinction.

“Customs and other enforcement agencies in China need to step up their efforts to halt the illegal totoaba trade.”

EIA is calling for online retail platforms in China to stop selling totoaba maw, for increased surveillance of marine products markets in Hong Kong and Guangzhou and for customs agencies to prioritise interception of contraband fish maw.

The only recorded case of a cetacean (whale, dolphin or porpoise) species becoming extinct is the baiji or Chinese river dolphin; found only in China’s Yangtze River, the species was declared functionally extinct in 2006.

China now has a vital role to play in ensuring that the vaquita does not go the same way.



环境调查署(EIA)最近在内地南方与香港的海产市场的调查结果显示,非法花胶的贸易仍然猖獗,若继续不加管制,海湾鼠海豚(也称小头鼠海豚、加湾鼠海豚,拉丁名:Phocoena sinus)——世界上最濒危的海洋哺乳类动物——将因此灭绝。

海湾鼠海豚是一种仅生活在靠近墨西哥的加利福尼亚北部湾水域内的小型海豚。由于对生活在同一海域内的加湾石首鱼(拉丁名:Totoaba macdonaldi)的捕鱼作业常常误捕海湾鼠海豚,它的数量由1997年约567尾急跌至2014年的97尾。

Vaquita and totoaba (c) NOAA Fisheries

海湾鼠海豚和加湾石首鱼©NOAA 渔业协会




Totoaba maws openly on sale in Guangzhou, China (c) EIA

中国广州市场上公开销售的石首鱼花胶 ©EIA

EIA在广州走访了12家商铺,其中7家公开销售“金钱鳘”。这些商贩通常了解贩卖加湾石首鱼花胶是违法行为,并且这种鱼类仅生活在墨西哥地区。他们称海关并不经常检查花胶类干货, 所以将此类违禁品从香港走私至中国大陆十分简单。


EIA 的网络调查发现了众多花胶交易平台,发现消费者对加湾石首鱼花胶情有独钟。一些平台上的交易十分活跃,提供出售加湾石首鱼花胶和其他各类花胶。通过对Facebook群组里来自南美洲、墨西哥、美国和亚洲的买卖方的分析,我们发现花胶贸易是全球性的。

Gillnets are the primary cause of Vaquita mortality in the upper gulf of california, Mexico.

刺网捕鱼© Chris Johnson



This 6-9 year old maw was being sold for 80,000 RMB, approximately £8,250, China (c) EIA

加湾石首鱼花胶的价格取决于多种标准,包括大小,性别,重量和年龄。这条6-9岁的加湾石首鱼的花胶以80, 000元成交。该商贩持有上百条幼龄的石首鱼花胶,只能以该价格的十分之一成交。©EIA


EIA海洋项目负责人Clare Perry表示:“海湾鼠海豚的未来生存状况取决于少数加湾石首鱼花胶的华人买家。若这个暴利市场持续发展,海湾鼠海豚将无可避免地死在这些非法渔网中,逐步减少直至灭绝。”




现 在为确保加湾鼠海豚不重蹈白鳍豚的覆辙,中国任重道远。