For two decades, the totoaba has been successfully grown in aquaculture operations in farms in Mexico, but the latest decision on its status in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species means that it won’t be seen on shelves anywhere else any time soon.
Totoaba is a large fish native to the Gulf of California that is relatively unremarkable except for a key bit of biology: its large swim bladder. While the exact origin of the demand for totoaba swim bladders is unclear – some associate the demand to similarities between the totoaba’s swim bladder to that of the also-endangered yellow croaker in China – the results are obvious. Prime specimens of totoaba swim bladders, known as “fish maw” in the black market channels they are sold in in Asia, can go for hundreds of thousands of dollars, sold to wealthy customers who use the maw for claimed medicinal purposes.
That high value makes the fish a prime target for poachers and smugglers. Fishing for totoaba has been banned for years, but when moderate-sized shipments of the dried swim bladders can fetch millions of dollars for smugglers, the desire to poach the fish is high, since a single prime specimen can represent several years’ salary for poachers in Mexico.
The totoaba, which is listed on CITES as endangered, is also directly tied to an even more critically endangered species: the vaquita. A small porpoise that shares habitat with the totoaba, current surveys of the population of vaquita left in the wild have indicated there are likely less than 19 individuals left.
Totoaba poachers often use banned gillnets within the vaquita habitat that catch the small porpoises and inevitably drown them, compounding the environmental impact the totoaba black market has on the porpoises.
One company, Earth Ocean Farms (EOF), has been raising totoaba in net pens off the coast of Mexico in the hopes of developing a market for the fish. The company has a 343-hectare offshore aquaculture farm and a processing plant in the southeastern region of the Gulf of California. The company is allowed to raise the species under a special permit, called a Unidad de Manejo Ambiental, granted by Mexico.
In addition to raising the fish for sale, the company regularly releases thousands of juvenile totoaba into the wild. Most recently, the company released 40,000 totoaba in July – the fifth such release.
"The totoaba is an endangered species, so we pursue to breed in the most environmentally and responsible way. This release has two goals: First, getting the society involved, especially children, who are the next generation that must know how to protect the environment; and second, delivering a farmed species that is 100 percent legal, nutritional, and healthy through our Management Unit for the Conservation of Wildlife,” EOF CEO Pablo Konietzko said in a release about the event.
The company also sells totoaba into the Mexican market as a food commodity.
However, EOF is unable to sell totoaba products anywhere outside of Mexico due to the species’ CITES classification as “Appendix I;” species considered threatened with extinction that are banned from all trade except in exceptional circumstances.
For multiple years, EOF has made efforts to register its operation through CITES for sale for commercial purposes. The convention does have ways of allowing Appendix I species to be commercial sold, and according to Mexico, the current proposal by Earth Ocean Farms meets requirements outlined in the CITES resolutions.
The legal and illegal products would be separated using genetic markers or QR-coded tags. EOF asserts that by creating a legal supply of totoaba, the black market will be reduced and could potentially benefit the totoaba and vaquita populations.
However, a wide number of NGOs counter that the legalization of any type of totoaba trade would do far more harm than good.
A report by the Environmental Investigation Agency widely criticized the efforts of CITES parties to stop the illegal trade of totoaba, and the potential of selling any of the fish legally.
“A legal trade in farmed totoaba would irrefutably complicate the enforcement challenge faced by CITES Parties in addressing the trafficking of totoaba,” the report states. “The traceability scheme proposed by EOF, which includes genetic markers and the use of QR-coded tags is problematic. While genetic marking may be appropriate for totoaba parts in trade, the Mexican customs agency (Aduana Mexico) and many other nations lack sufficient capacity and funding to regularly conduct genetic testing.”
According to Clare Perry, the ocean campaigns leader for the EIA, allowing the sale of totoaba legally will have little impact on poaching and could even exacerbate the problem. The market for totoaba maws, Perry told SeafoodSource, is still relatively small compared to other wildlife products that have claimed medicinal properties. Any additional supply would likely “fuel the market.”
“It could also increase the incentive for the illegal harvest of older, wild-caught fish with the most valuable (i.e. much larger) swim bladders,” she said in an email.
The market is already escalating, with little signs of slowing down, she added.
“The February 2019 CIRVA [Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita] report concluded that totoaba fishing was at ‘a very high level’ during the 2019 totoaba season and that it was ‘growing’ compared to previous years; and that ‘enforcement efforts have been completely ineffective in reducing the illegal totoaba fishery in the Upper Gulf of California,’” Perry said.
At the 71st meeting of the Standing Committee of CITES – an annual meeting considering a variety of proposals for the conventions – which took place earlier in 2019, decision on the proposal by EOF was deferred until the 73rd Standing Committee, which won’t take place until 2021.
Objections to the proposal by Mexico were provided by both Israel and the United States, and interventions were made by representatives of Africa, Asia, Central and South America, Europe, North America, Oceania, Mexico, the U.S., the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Sea Shepherd legal.
For Perry, the current situation regarding both the totoaba and the vaquita makes it unlikely that legalizing the sale of farm-raised specimens could aid the species.
“At this point, there is a complete lack of enforcement of current fishing regulations and the ban on totoaba trade,” Perry said. “The illegal fishing and trade in totoaba is completely out of control [and] it has escalated this year. I cannot imagine a scenario in the near future where the level of control required to monitor a legal trade in totoaba would be feasible for the Mexican authorities to implement.”
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons