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Mexico's Vaquita Might Not Withstand the Rising Chinese Market for Totoaba Bladders

Melissa Gaskill - Newsweek
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October 24, 2015

A Totoaba fish swims underwater near Ensenada, Mexico. The Totoaba is prized for its swim bladder, used in Asian cuisine and for its medicinal and nutritional benefits. (Richard Herrmann/Minden Pictures/Newscom)

A small fiberglass boat rocks on the surface of the water a few hundred yards from shore about 100 miles down Baja California from the U.S.-Mexico border. Two men in yellow slickers and rubber boots stand in the boat, pulling a loosely woven net from the water with their hands. Tangled in the gillnet are four dull silver fish about 5 feet long, each weighing more than 100 pounds. Known as totoaba, these fish live only in the upper Gulf of California and are considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Mexico and the U.S. Since 1976, their trade has been prohibited under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora since 1976.

And yet the fishermen cut open each fish, remove the swim bladder - a gas-filled organ that helps the fish control its depth - and toss the rest overboard. They may harvest 100 totoaba bladders tonight and earn anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000, depending on current market prices.

Buyers dry these bladders and ship them to markets in Hong Kong, where the price for the flat, yellowish, dinner-plate-sized organs sometimes goes as high as six figures. The Chinese buy them as gifts to cement business relationships, for use in traditional banquet dishes or to eat for their supposed medicinal and nutritional benefits. Totoaba bladders are a substitute for those of the giant yellow croaker (aka Chinese bahaba), which was fished nearly to extinction decades ago.

The vaquita, an endangered harbor porpoise that only lives in the Gulf of California, is being killed as collateral damage in the hunt for the bladders of an endangered fish that shares these same waters. (Omar Vidal/EFE/Zuma)

The fishing net in Baja this night also contains a short, smooth mammal with a dark mouth and dark eyes - a Gulf of California harbor porpoise, better known as the vaquita. This species lives only in these waters, and its population was likely never large; the first official survey in 1997 estimated it at 567, a number scientists suspect already reflected a significant decline due to changes in Colorado River inflows and fishing activity. The IUCN considers it critically endangered, and the U.S. has listed it as federally endangered since 1985. The biggest threat is totoaba fishing: Vaquita become snared in gillnets set for totoaba and drown. In the past three years, as illegal fishing activity has increased, so has the rate of decline of their population - 30 to 85 individuals are killed in nets each year.

Read the rest at Newsweek

  Check out Deep Blue Conservancy

  Check out Ecological Group of Costa Verde

  Check out The Western Ecological Society

  Check out Association for Environmental Unity in Mexico

  Check out Fideicomiso Estero el Salado

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