How a black market trade is killing the world’s smallest porpoise

Feature Story - 2015-05-27
In some Asian cultures, the dried swim bladders of certain large fishes are considered a culinary delicacy. To Chinese people they are known as fish maw, and are highly prized as symbols of high social status. However, the senseless worship of swim bladders of one type of endangered fish, the totoaba, is closely linked to the fate of our sea’s 97 remaining vaquita, the world’s smallest and most endangered porpoise.

In the waters off the coast of Baja California in northern Mexico lives the rare vaquita, the world’s smallest cetacean. Sharing the same waters, the totoaba fish are also endangered and under protection. Even though commercial fishing for totoaba is banned, they are illegally poached for their prized swim bladders.

The rampant use of gillnets to illegally catch totoaba is the main threat to the survival of the vaquita. Vaquita can easily swim into the near-invisible gillnets by accident. Once caught by the gillnet, the more the tiny porpoise struggles to free itself, the more the gillnet tightens, causing the vaquita to suffocate and die.

Evidence collected by Greenpeace East Asia has revealed that totoaba swim bladders are being smuggled into Hong Kong with impunity.

Our investigation in Hong Kong’s famous “dried seafood market”, identified at least thirteen shops as potential sellers of totoaba swim bladders, among which seven were able to show us dried samples in the shop. Others sent us photos of their inventory of bladders, often stored in other regions such Mainland China and the U.S. This is clearly just tip of the iceberg of the whole black market situation in Hong Kong.

This Mexico-Hong Kong illegal trade is done by air and commonly arranged by suppliers from Mexico. Bladders are normally hand-carried by smugglers (sometimes via U.S.) and delivered at the Hong Kong international airport.

In order to get a better understanding of the alertness of the Hong Kong Customs in relation to endangered species trading, Greenpeace tried to bring similar types of swim bladders from Mexico and U.S. to Hong Kong. Not surprisingly, we got “free entry” even when we deliberately showed the Customs officer the dried swim bladders.

Greenpeace is pushing the Hong Kong government to commit to controlling the illegal trade in totoaba swim bladders and strengthen efforts to crack down on smuggling. And we need your help to make a difference again.

Last November, Greenpeace launched a global campaign to help save the vaquita. Thanks to the over 470,000 people around the world who signed our petition, the Mexican President Nieto announced in April that Mexico will ban fishing with gillnets for two years, and will also expand the vaquita’s protected zone to 11 times its current size.

We won this crucial victory with your willingness to speak up for the vaquita. But this is just the beginning, not the whole solution, and much more work is needed.

While we will be actively monitoring the Mexican government’s enforcement of the ban, Hong Kong– the destination of the swim bladder –must do its part as well.

There can be no trade without demand, no market without a customer. Every shipment of totoaba discovered and intercepted will send a strong signal to smugglers and fishermen that Hong Kong will not tolerate this crime.

Your action right now will help pressure the Hong Kong authorities to STOP such immoral trade of the totoaba swim bladder, and to take tangible steps to cut the link to destructive fishing immediately.