Sometime soon, a Chinese gourmand will sit down to a delicacy known as jin qian min, translated as “golden coin maw” or “money maw” made from the swim bladder of the totoaba, a large fish found in Mexico’s Gulf of California. The swim bladders sell for US$22,000 per kg in China, up from US$9,000 two years ago as they grow in scarcity.
That swim bladders, which the totoaba use to regulate buoyancy instead of having to use their fins to maintain depth, are mistakenly thought to have therapeutic value in Chinese traditional medicine. Their illegal export from Mexico will inevitably spell the end of a diminutive 1.5-meter porpoise called the vaquita, known as the world’s cutest fish although it is a mammal like other porpoises. It is collateral damage, becoming entangled and drowning in illegal gillnets set for other species including the totoaba.
At the moment, according to the UK-based Environmental Investigation Agency, only 10 of the vaquita are estimated to be left. There could be as few as six, researchers say. They are expected to go extinct in 2019. The totoaba is expected to be not far behind despite the fact that commercial fishing for the animal has been banned since 1975. When Asia Sentinel reported this story in January 2016, there were 97 vaquita left, meaning the population has shrunk by 90 percent in three years. In 1997, the count was 547.
The porpoises are a conservation crusader’s dream. Only weighing about 55 kg, they have large dark rings around their eyes and what appears to be a perpetual smile on their lips. They are so shy that they are counted by sound. They are most often found close to shore in the Gulf’s shallow waters, although they quickly swim away if a boat approaches.
The totoaba’s swim bladders, like rhino horns, tiger penises, pangolin scales, sun bear gall bladders, deer horns and shark’s fins, have no medicinal value. But as Chinese incomes rise, they turn to therapies and treatments dating to the 3d Century BCE. Various fish species, including the totoaba because of its perceived kinship to the Chinese bahaba, or giant yellow croaker, are a prized species used in traditional medicines and tonics. They don’t taste fishy, and they take on the taste characteristics of the ingredients. They are also used as a palliative during pregnancy and for ailments in Chinese medicine.
Organized criminal syndicates export the swim bladders. In April 2018, Mexican police arrested two men attempting to take 355 of the dried bladders out of the country. Just three days later, authorities discovered 417 totoaba maws in two suitcases of another Chinese national who was on his way to Guangzhou.
The announcement in early March from the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita calls on Mexico President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to end all gillnet fishing and adopt a “zero tolerance” policy of enforcement in the vaquita’s small remaining habitat.
“One of Earth’s most incredible creatures is about to be wiped off the planet forever,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Yet Mexico has only made paper promises to protect these porpoises from deadly nets, without enforcement on the water. Time is running out for President Lopez Obrador to stop all gillnet fishing and save the vaquita.”
The crisis for the porpoise spurred a lawsuit filed on March 21, 2018 in US Federal Court in New York by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Biological Diversity and Animal Welfare Institute and other environmental advocacy organizations, asking for court intervention and an immediate ban on the import into the United States of Mexican shrimp and other seafood in an attempt to pressure Mexico to fully ban gillnets used to catch the imported consumer products in the vaquita’s home waters.
The lawsuit argues that the Departments of Commerce, Treasury, and Homeland Security are violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), specifically regarding how it relates to foreign fishing practices. Under the MMPA, the government is required to ban seafood imports from fisheries that kill or injure marine mammals at a rate above US standards.
Any chance that the Trump administration will move before the demise of the vaquita has to be considered a long shot at best, considering the administration’s antipathy to all things environmental. Although the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit upheld a preliminary ban on Mexican seafood imports to save the vaquita, the Trump administration’s US Department of Commerce under Wilbur Ross has shown little interest in the case. In addition, illegal gill-netting continues to take its toll.
Other proposed solutions, including trapping the animals and moving them to a safer environment, are considered impractical, since taking them out of their current habitat risks all kinds of unknown dangers and conditions. Thus, banning the gillnets, a solution that the Mexican government has so far met with indifference, is the only hope and one that is about as likely as the Trump administration banning Mexican shrimp. The vaquita is very likely about to disappear.