Illegal trade seizures: Totoaba

Illegal fishing for totoaba is the principal cause of the decline of the critically endangered vaquita, the world’s smallest porpoise and most endangered cetacean.

In recent years, vaquita numbers have fallen catastrophically as a result of bycatch in nets set to capture the totoaba. Today, the vaquita stands on the very edge of extinction – it is estimated that as few as 10 individuals survive.  

Unless all gillnets are eliminated from the range of the vaquita immediately, the vaquita is likely to go extinct soon. 

The totoaba is a critically endangered fish species found only in Mexico’s Gulf of California. Caught largely for its swim bladder, an organ prized in traditional Chinese medicine, overfishing in the 20th century saw totoaba numbers fall by 95 per cent. 

Catching the totoaba has been banned in Mexico since 1975 and international trade in the species was banned in 1977. 

Despite this, illegal fishing and trade in totoaba continues. A surge in totoaba poaching has been observed since 2010-11, reflecting increased demand for the species in China as a replacement for another species, the Chinese bahaba, which is commercially extinct.  

Methodology of collecting data  

On our interactive map, the red markers indicate seizures of totoaba by law enforcement since January 2013 and while the black markers represent convictions relating to the totoaba trade. This data has been collated from publicly available information, including enforcement agency press releases and news media in English, Spanish and Chinese, but is not an exhaustive data set. The black markers represent observations of totoaba swim bladder during investigations by Greenpeace and ourselves since 2015. 


This map is updated regularly

Key takeouts   

  • Illegal totoaba fishing is pushing the critically endangered vaquita porpoise to extinction. 
  • Currently, it is estimated that as few as 10 individual vaquitas remain. 
  • Vaquita are dying in the illegal gillnets used to catch totoaba. 
  • The critically endangered totoaba is found only in Mexico’s Gulf of California.  
  • Totoaba are caught largely for their swim bladders, an organ prized in traditional Chinese medicine. 
  • Overfishing in the 20th century saw totoaba numbers fall by 95 per cent.  
  • Catching totoaba has been banned in Mexico since 1975 and international trade in the species was banned in 1977. 
  • A surge in totoaba poaching has been observed since 2010-11, reflecting increased demand in China as a replacement for the commercially extinct Chinese bahaba fish. 
  • The vast majority of seizures have taken place in Mexico and along the Mexico-US border. 
  • Our investigations in 2015 and 2016 revealed totoaba swim bladders openly on sale in China’s Guangdong Province. 

Contact us

If you wish to utilise our illegal trade seizure maps and need access to the raw data or have information you wish to submit, please contact us.