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

LONDON: A new investigation has revealed that the illegal trade in the swim bladders of endangered totoaba fish which is driving the vaquita porpoise to extinction is thriving on social media.

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 its new report On Borrowed Time – The ongoing illegal totoaba trade driving the critically endangered vaquita to extinction, the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (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.

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.



  • Sarah Dolman, EIA UK Senior Ocean Campaigner, via sarahdolman[at]
  • Paul Newman, EIA UK Senior Press & Communications Officer, via press[at] or +44 (0) 20 7354 7983



  1. EIA investigates and campaigns against environmental crime and abuse. Its undercover investigations expose transnational wildlife crime, with a focus on elephants, pangolins and tigers and forest crimes such as illegal logging and deforestation for cash crops such as palm oil. It works to safeguard global marine ecosystems by addressing the threats posed by plastic pollution, bycatch and commercial exploitation of whales, dolphins and porpoises. Finally, it works to avert climate catastrophe by strengthening and enforcing regional and international agreements that tackle short-lived climate super-pollutants, including ozone-depleting substances, hydrofluorocarbons and methane, and advocating corporate and policy measures to promote transition to a sustainable cooling sector and away from fossil fuels. It uses its findings in hard-hitting reports to campaign for new legislation, improved governance and more effective enforcement. Its field experience is used to provide guidance to enforcement agencies and it forms partnerships with local groups and activists and support their work through hands-on training.
  2. Read and download On Borrowed Time at


Environmental Investigation Agency
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Tel: +44 (0) 20 7354 7960