World’s Rarest Porpoise Is Dying to Feed a Black Market in Fish Bladders

A new Greenpeace investigation links Mexico, the United States, and Hong Kong in the illegal wildlife trade killing off the vaquita.
Vaquitas will go extinct by 2018 without immediate action to save the species, say scientists. (Photo: NOAA)
May 27, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

A wildlife black market stretching from Mexico’s Sea of Cortez to the streets of Hong Kong will drive the world’s most endangered porpoise to extinction unless it is shut down soon, according to a new report.

In the investigation, published on Wednesday, Greenpeace investigators said that vaquita porpoises are dying after being caught and drowned in illegal gill nets in the northern Gulf of California, the marine mammal’s only habitat.

The vaquita population has fallen from 200 porpoises in 2012 to 97 today, said Miguel Soto Treviño, the communications coordinator for Greenpeace Mexico.

The Mexican government banned fishing in vaquita habitat in April, but illegal fishing has surged in the region with rising demand in China for the bladder of a fish called the totoaba.

“In 2013 people from China appeared with thousands of dollars in their bags, in cash,” according to fishers in the region, said Treviño, and they are “paying Mexican fishermen $3,000 to $9,000 per kilogram of totoaba bladders.”

The totoaba itself is listed as an endangered species in Mexico and the U.S. because of overfishing.

Greenpeace’s investigators found that a single totoaba swim bladder can sell for $5,000 to more than $15,000 at shops in Hong Kong. A bladder weighing 400 grams can fetch $65,000, said Treviño.

Mexican couriers employed by Chinese smugglers transport the bladders into the United States, said Treviño, and then fly them from San Francisco or Los Angeles to dealers in Hong Kong. Customs officials there have either not discovered the illegal products or are overlooking the trade.

This makes the governments of all three countries responsible for the survival of the vaquita, he said. “Mexico made the first step with the fishing ban,” said Treviño. “Now we want cooperation between Hong Kong and United States authorities to stop this situation.”

RELATED: This Could Be the Last Chance to Save Mexico's Vaquita Porpoise From Extinction

Some people in China believe that the bladder, cooked in a soup, improves fertility and virility, said Treviño.

“Businessmen are using these bladders as special gifts to authorities, to high-profile politicians, to strengthen their relationships—as a way to show power and wealth,” he added, while other “want to keep that bladder because they know the price of the bladders will increase if the species is almost extinct.”

Greenpeace released the report simultaneously in the United States, Mexico, and Hong Kong on Wednesday, hoping to increase public awareness of the vaquita’s plight, as well as pressure governments to stop the bladder black market that is indirectly pushing the porpoise to extinction.

“I think that U.S. citizens can demand to their own government, ‘Stop contributing by omission to the extinction of a cetacean of Mexico,'” Treviño said.

So, Why Should You Care? Scientists estimate that 25 percent of the world's mammals are at risk of extinction. Saving them will mean restoring healthy environments that benefit animals and humans alike. One indicator of ecosystem health is biodiversity: the scope of variety in the plants and animals that live in a particular habitat. Losing a top-of-the-food-chain predator like the vaquita porpoise could have serious impacts on the ecological balance lower down the food chain, possibly affecting fish stocks that humans depend on for food.