Species for Sale: Totoaba
by Thomas Gomersall
The totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi) is a large fish found only in the central and northern parts of the Gulf of California in northwest Mexico. Capable of growing more than two metres long and weighing up to 100 kg, it is the largest member of the Sciaenidae, a family of fish that communicate with croaking sounds produced by vibrating special muscles against their swim bladders. It breeds only in the delta of the Colorado River in the north of the Gulf, where it briefly gathers in large numbers each year to spawn and where the young fish spend their first year or two (Environmental Investigation Agency, 2016; Márquez-Farías & Rosales-Juárez, 2013).
Item on Sale:
Fish swim bladders — often sold dried as ‘fish maw’ — are a delicacy in Chinese cuisine. In Hong Kong, the fish maw market is dominated by those of the Sciaenidae, with certain species more valuable than others. Traditionally, the species of choice for the most expensive fish maw was the Chinese bahaba, a close relative of the totoaba. But due to the overfishing and near global extinction of this species, demand for totoaba maw as a replacement has increased dramatically since 2013 (Sadovy de Mitcheson et al, 2019; Environmental Investigation Agency, 2016). Today, it is the most profitable type of fish maw, fetching up to HK$1 million per kilogramme, although due to its high cost it is rarely eaten and is instead bought mainly as a gift or investment (Kao, 2015; Environmental Investigation Agency, 2016; Sadovy, 2020).
Despite the totoaba’s listing on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and a consequent ban on all international trade, Hong Kong is one of the biggest buyers of totoaba maw, mainly to supply the even bigger demand in mainland China (Environmental Investigation Agency, 2016). In 2017 alone, the city imported 3,272 tonnes of totoaba maw, worth approximately HK$2 billion (Leung, 2018). Meanwhile, a 2015 Greenpeace survey of 70 dried seafood shops in Sheung Wan identified at least 13 as potential sellers (Kao, 2015) and totoaba maw is openly sold on online shopping platforms (Environmental Investigation Agency, 2016).
Even before 2013, the Asian fish maw trade had been devastating for the totoaba. For much of the 20th century, demand for fish maw spurred increasingly concerted and aggressive fishing methods that eventually led to large numbers of reproductively-active totoaba being caught. By 1975, the fishery had all but collapsed due to overfishing and the degradation of the Colorado River delta, prompting a permanent fishing ban by the Mexican government that same year and a ban on all international totoaba trade in 1977 (Juarez et al, 2016). In the early 2010s, there were tentative signs that the species may have begun a modest recovery (Valenzuela-Quiñonez et al, 2015).
But while the bans are still in effect, illegal fishing facilitated by poor law enforcement and especially the recent spike in Chinese demand for totoaba maw has continued, setting back any population recovery that may have occurred. The predictability of totoaba migration routes and spawning locations and their tendency to aggregate during spawning makes it easy to catch large numbers of them. Often, poachers will set anchored gillnets at night and leave them for several days, reducing their chances of detection. Fishing activity is particularly high in the breeding season just before the adult totoaba are ready to spawn, preventing population replenishment (Juarez et al, 2016, Environmental Investigation Agency, 2016).
More alarming than the effects of the totoaba trade on the fish itself however, is its effects on a non-target species: the vaquita. Also unique to the Gulf of California, this tiny, critically endangered porpoise is roughly the same size as a totoaba and so is easily caught as bycatch in the same gillnets. It is estimated that nearly one in five vaquitas caught dies by drowning in gillnets, leading to a drastic plunge in their numbers (WWF, 2020). In 2018, the global vaquita population was estimated at fewer than 19 individuals (Jaramillo-Legorreta et al, 2019), a number that will likely decline further given the continuation of illegal fishing in protected areas for them (Sullivan Brennan, 2019).
How can Hong Kong help?
While Mexico implemented a permanent gillnet ban for the Gulf of California in 2017 (La Porte, 2017) and authorities in California (a transit point for fish maw smugglers between Mexico and China) have made several seizures and prosecutions, Hong Kong’s enforcement efforts against the totoaba trade have been comparatively lacking. Between 2013 and 2015, far fewer seizures of totoaba maw were made here than in Mexico or the US during the same period. Moreover, a lack of routine checks of fish maw consignments by border control agents makes smuggling it between Hong Kong and southern China easy (Environmental Investigation Agency, 2016).
One reason is that the current budget for tackling the wildlife trade in Hong Kong (HK$47.5 million in 2018–2019) is too small for effective law enforcement, prosecution or investigation. Even when prosecutions do occur, they tend to be for low-level operatives within smuggling networks, because there is currently no investigative capacity or mandate to catch the powerful crime bosses and kingpins behind those networks (Sadovy, 2020).
To more effectively tackle the wildlife trade in general, the budget for doing so should be increased significantly to enhance investigative capacity. For tackling the totoaba trade, this means increased surveillance of seafood markets, more seizures of suspected totoaba maw and the closure of enterprises involved in the trade (Environmental Investigation Agency, 2016). Wildlife crimes should be included under Hong Kong’s Organised and Serious Crimes Ordinance (Cap 455), allowing them to be treated with the same level of seriousness as drug trafficking and granting investigators more power to trace and prosecute crimes bosses and kingpins (Kao, 2018; Sadovy, 2020). If implemented immediately, such measures may halt the loss of the totoaba and vaquita, the latter of which has shown signs of breeding despite its low population (Sullivan Brennan, 2019).
· Environmental Investigation Agency. 2016. Dual Extinction: The illegal trade in the endangered totoaba and its impact on the critically endangered vaquita. Environmental Investigation Agency. https://eia-international.org/wp-content/uploads/EIA-Dual-Extinction-mr.pdf. Accessed: 25 April 2020.
· Jaramillo-Legorreta, A.M., Cardenas-Hinojosa, G., Nieto-Garcia, E., Rojas-Bracho, L., Thomas, L., Ver Hoef, J.M., Moore, J., Taylor, B., Barlow, J. and N. Tregenza. 2019. Decline towards extinction of Mexico’s vaquita porpoise (Phocoena sinus). Royal Society Open Science, vol. 6(7): 190598.
· Juarez, L.M., Konietzko, P.A. and M.H. Schwarz. 2016. Totoaba aquaculture and conservation: Hope for an endangered fish from Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. World Aquaculture: 30pp.–38pp.
· Kao, E. ‘‘More lucrative than cocaine’: Hong Kong retailers cashing in on endangered fish maw, Greenpeace says’. South China Morning Post, 27 May 2015. https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/health-environment/article/1810125/its-even-more-lucrative-cocaine-hong-kong (Accessed: 19 February 2020).
· Kao, E. ‘Hong Kong green groups call for endangered species smuggling to be dealt with using organised crime laws.’ South China Morning Post, 19 August 2018. https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/health-environment/article/2160319/hong-kong-green-groups-call-endangered-species (Accessed: 3 April 2020).
· La Porte, A. ‘Mexico bans gill nets to save endangered porpoise’. CNN, 2 July 2017. https://edition.cnn.com/2017/07/02/americas/mexico-bans-gill-nets-vaquita-porpoise/index.html (Accessed: 24 February 2020).
· Leung, R. ‘Is Hong Kong’s HK$2 billion love of the dried seafood fish maw worth endangering a species?’. South China Morning Post, 2 June 2018. https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/health-environment/article/2148776/hong-kongs-hk2-billion-love-dried-seafood-fish-maw (Accessed: 19 February 2020).
· Márquez-Farías, J.F. and Rosales-Juárez, F.J. 2013. Intrinsic rebound potential of the endangered (Totoaba macdonaldi) population, endemic to the Gulf of California, México. Fisheries Research, vol. 147: 150pp.–153pp.
· Sadovy de Mitcheson, Y., To, A.W.L., Nga, W.W., Hiu, Y.K and S.B. Wing. 2019. Emerging from the murk: threats, challenges and opportunities for the global swim bladder trade. Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries, vol. 29(4): 809pp.–835pp.
· Sadovy, Y. (PhD), interviewed by Thomas Gomersall, 2020, The University of Hong Kong.
· Sullivan Brennan, D. ‘Scientists spot critically endangered vaquita porpoises with babies’. San Diego Union-Tribune, 22 November 2019. https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/environment/story/2019-11-22/scientists-spot-critically-endangered-vaquita-porpoises-with-babies (Accessed: 24 February 2020).
· Valenzuela-Quiñonez, F., Arreguín-Sánchez, F., Salas-Márquez, S., García-De León, F.J., Garza, J.C., Román-Rodríguez, M.J. and J.A. De-Anda-Montañez. 2015. Critically Endangered totoaba Totoaba macdonaldi: signs of recovery and potential threats after a population collapse. Endangered Species Research, vol. 29: 1pp.–11pp.
· WWF, Vaquita, [website], 2020, https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/vaquita (Accessed: 27 February 2020).