Mexico fights to save totoaba, a species ensnared in China’s black market

Fish maw drying outside a dried goods store in Hong Kong
Fish maw drying outside a dried goods store in Hong Kong

By Laurent Thome and Dennis Chong / phys.Org

The high-speed navy boat stopped on the moonlit waters of Mexico’s Gulf of California as sailors looked through binoculars for small vessels conducting illegal activities under the cover of darkness.

While naval forces patrol the seas to thwart drug trafficking, the sailors were not searching for cocaine ships that night off the coast of San Felipe, a fishing town.

They were hunting for poachers using banned gillnets to catch totoaba, a critically endangered fish whose swim bladders are dried and sold for tens of thousands of dollars on the black market in China despite an international prohibition.

The government beefed up patrols on the upper Gulf of California a year ago because the vast nets have also led to the near extinction of the world’s smallest porpoise, the vaquita marina (“little cow”).

Authorities have detained around 80 people while seizing more than 100 boats and hundreds of totoaba swim bladders.

“There is less illegal fishing,” said Joel Gonzalez Moreno, wildlife inspections director at the federal environmental protection prosecutor’s office.

Gonzalez Moreno said China only began to acknowledge the totoaba smuggling problem in January but is now collaborating with US and Mexican authorities to exchange information.

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