Illegal Trade in Swim Bladders Driving Vaquitas to Extinction

Written by on January 12, 2016 in Fish, Policy & Ocean Law

A new report from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) is calling for “an urgent crackdown on the illegal trade in endangered totoaba fish swim bladders.”

The totoaba is a large marine fish found only in the Upper Gulf of California that can grow to over 6.5 feet in length and weigh up to 220 pounds. It is listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The totoaba is targeted by illegal fishers for its swim bladder, which is in high demand in Hong Kong and southern China for its unproven “medicinal benefits.” Dried swim bladders, or fish maw, fetch such high prices that they are often called “aquatic cocaine.”

Vaquita. Photo credit: NOAA.

Vaquita. Photo credit: NOAA.

Not only is the totoaba a critically endangered species, but it is closely connected to another species with fewer than 100 individuals left in the whole population: the vaquita. Similarly to the totoaba, the vaquita is endemic to the Gulf of California, is critically endangered, and is threatened by illegal fishing. Vaquita are unintentionally caught in the same nets used to catch totoaba.

EIA’s new report, Dual Extinction, includes findings from research and investigations in the biggest markets for totoaba swim bladders, Hong Kong and the Guangdong Province. The release of the report coincides with the 66th meeting of the Standing Committee of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) that’s taking place this week in Geneva, Switzerland. The report calls on all Parties to take action to “effectively combat the totoaba trade” before the vaquita is driven to extinction.

“The vaquita and totoaba are both fully protected under national law as well as internationally through their CITES Appendix I listings, but such safeguards are worthless without urgent intervention on the ground to enforce them,” said Clare Perry, Team Leader of EIA’s Oceans Campaign.

To learn more, read the EIA report: Dual Extinction.

Copyright © 2016 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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