Chinese Taste For Fish Bladder Threatens Rare Porpoise In Mexico

Feb 9, 2016
Originally published on July 15, 2016 8:54 am

The international trade in exotic animal parts includes rhino horn, seahorses and bear gallbladders. But perhaps none is as strange as the swim bladder from a giant Mexican fish called the totoaba.

The totoaba can grow to the size of a football player. It lives only in the Gulf of California in Mexico, along with the world's rarest marine mammal — an endangered porpoise called the vaquita.

Now the new and lucrative bladder trade threatens to wipe out both animals.

"People in Asian cultures use the swim bladder in a soup called fish maw," explains Erin Dean at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. It's also reputed to have some medicinal value — it's thought to boost fertility.

Dean says no one knows why the demand for it has skyrocketed recently. It could be that when a Chinese fish called a yellow croaker, which once supplied bladders, started dying out, people started turning to the Mexican totoaba to meet the demand for bladders.

And the totoaba has one big bladder, which it inflates and deflates to control its flotation. When dried, it's about the size of a laptop computer — and it sells for big bucks.

"When one totoaba fish bladder goes for $10,000 in the Chinese market," says Dean, "law enforcement agencies kind of raise up their eyebrows and take note of this trade going on."

What investigators found is that Mexican fishermen are using huge nets, called gill nets, to catch totoaba. And those nets also accidentally snare and kill the vaquita porpoises. Their corpses get thrown away, while the totoaba bladders go to China. The whole business is a violation of both Mexican and international law, since the totoaba and the vaquita are listed by international treaty as endangered, so they're legally protected.

Fish and Wildlife Service agents are finding that the bladders often make their way to China via California. They found their first illegal bladder in a car coming across the Mexican border in 2013 — an astute agent had heard of the trade and recognized the bladder.

Later that year, agents seized another fish bladder from under the floor mats of another car at the border. They let the driver go but followed him. Dean says when agents raided his house, the scene inside was crazy. No furniture — just bladders. Everywhere.

"There were totoaba swim bladders placed all throughout the house," Dean says. "Giant fans blowing to dry out the bladders." Altogether, the 214 bladders that agents found in that house were worth $3.6 million.

Federal agents fear that with that kind of money at stake, the trade will get even bigger. "We absolutely have heard that cartels are involved in this trade," says Dean. "We've yet to nail that down."

Seven people have been prosecuted so far, she says. But fines and jail sentences issued so far have been relatively light.

Meanwhile, as more totoaba die for soup, more of the vaquita die with them. There are now only about 100 of these porpoises left on Earth, according Leigh Henry, a conservation policy adviser at the World Wildlife Fund. "It's the most endangered marine mammal," she says. "They are beautiful animals. They look like they have lipstick on and mascara."

The only place they're found is in the Gulf of California. Years ago, Mexico tried to protect the vaquita by putting large parts of its range off limits to fishing with gill nets. And the vaquita's numbers rebounded. Things were looking hopeful — until the totoaba trade took off.

Last month, this became an international issue. Government officials from the U.S., Mexico and China met in Geneva to talk about wildlife trade. It was the first time a lot of people had heard much about this new trade, says Laura Noguchi from the Fish and Wildlife Service, who was there. Mexican officials said China had a responsibility to track down bladder buyers. China said Mexico should crack down harder on illegal fishing.

Noguchi says the Chinese do appear to be taking the trade more seriously now. "They have looked at some of their dried seafood markets in Hong Kong," she says. "That's a hub apparently for the sale of this swim bladder."

But Chinese officials say they've yet to see much of a totoaba market in China. They also noted in a letter to officials who monitor wildlife trade under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species that it's hard to tell what's totoaba bladder and what might come from other, non-endangered fish.

Historically, fighting international wildlife trade takes a long time. And Leigh Henry of the WWF says that's especially true when it involves an animal that most people don't know about. "I want my kids to live in a world where vaquita continue to exist," she says. "My girls are 9 and 6. And they're probably two of the only people in the United States who know what a vaquita is. And they're concerned."

So is she. She says without an end to the trade, the vaquita could disappear by 2020.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The international trade in animal parts includes some pretty exotic ones - rhino horns, seahorses, tiger paws. Perhaps none is as strange as the swim bladder from a giant Mexican fish. A single bladder sells for thousands of dollars. The trade is far from harmless. As NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, it could wipe out two species - the fish and the planet's rarest marine mammal.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: This tale starts with a fish called the totoaba. It grows as big as a football player and lives only in the Gulf of California in Mexico. In those same waters you'll also find the world's smallest and rarest porpoise. It's called the vaquita. Both the totoaba and the vaquita are endangered and legally protected. But they're dying fast and here's why.

ERIN DEAN: People in the Asian culture use the swim bladder in a soup called fish maw.

JOYCE: The swim bladder, explains Erin Dean, of the totoaba. Dean is the resident agent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Southern California. The fish uses the bladder to hold air and control its flotation. The totoaba has a big one. When dried, it's about the size of a laptop computer. Dean says no one knows why the demand for it has skyrocketed recently. There was a Chinese fish called a yellow croaker that once supplied bladders, but apparently their population has dropped and the trade has shifted to Mexico and to the totoaba.

DEAN: When one totoaba fish bladder goes for $10,000 in the Chinese market, all law enforcement agencies kind of raise up their eyebrows and begin to take note of this trade.

JOYCE: What they've found is that Mexican fisherman are using huge nets called gill nets to catch totoaba and cut out the bladders. But those nets also accidentally snare vaquita and the porpoises die. Their corpses get thrown away while the totoaba bladders go to China, often via California. Fish and Wildlife Service agents found their first illegal bladder in a car coming across the Mexican border in 2013. Later that year, agents seized a fish bladder from under the floor mats of another car at the border. They let this driver go, but followed him. Dean says when agents raided his house, the scene inside was crazy. No furniture, just bladders everywhere.

DEAN: There were totoaba swim bladders placed all throughout the house, giant fans blowing to dry out the bladders - what we refer to in law enforcement as a house.

JOYCE: The value of those 214 bladders was $3.6 million. Federal agencies fear that with that kind of money at stake, the trade will get even bigger.

DEAN: Well, we absolutely have heard that cartels are involved in this trade. We've yet to nail that down.

JOYCE: Dean also notes that fines and jail sentences issued so far are pretty light. Now, as more totoaba die for soup, more of the vaquita die with them. It's not a well-known endangered species, like the black rhinoceros for example. But Leigh Henry with the World Wildlife Fund says there are now only about 100 of them left on earth.

LEIGH HENRY: If you get on your smartphone or go to your computer and Google vaquita, they're beautiful animals. They look like they have on lipstick and mascara.

JOYCE: And it's rarer than almost any animal in the world.

HENRY: It is the most endangered marine mammal.

JOYCE: It lives only in the Gulf of California. Years ago, Mexico tried to protect the vaquita by putting large parts of its range off limits to fishing with gill nets. And the vaquitas' numbers rebounded. Things looked hopeful, until the totoaba trade took off. Last month, this all became an international issue. Government officials from the U.S., Mexico and China met in Geneva to talk about wildlife trade. Laura Noguchi from the Fish and Wildlife Service was there. She says it was the first time a lot of people had heard much about this new trade.

LAURA NOGUCHI: I think what it does is shine a light on it.

JOYCE: The meeting wasn't without discord. Mexican officials said China had a responsibility to track down bladder buyers. China said Mexico should crack down harder on illegal fishing. Noguchi says the Chinese do appear to be taking the trade more seriously now.

NOGUCHI: They have looked at some of their dried seafood markets in Hong Kong. That's a hub apparently for the sale of this swim bladder.

JOYCE: But Chinese officials say they've yet to see much of a totoaba market in China. Historically, fighting international wildlife trade takes a long time. And Leigh Henry of the World Wildlife Fund says that's especially true when it involves an animal that most people don't even know about.

HENRY: I want my kids to live in a world where vaquita continue to exist. My girls are 9 and 6, and they're probably two of the only people (laughter) in the United States who know what a vaquita is, and they're concerned.

JOYCE: Henry says without an end to the trade, the vaquita could disappear in four years. Christopher Joyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.