Dried fish bladder anyone? No? Ok, so if we’re honest, it does not sound all that appetising, but this product, also known as ‘maw’, is so popular it is driving two species to the brink. The bladder of the totoaba fish is worth around £6000 per kg in both China and Hong Kong, where is it served as a traditional sea food dish. Considered to have medical benefits, ‘mow’ has earned the name ‘aquatic cocaine’ due to its exceedingly high price tag.
Recently, there has been something of a resurgence in the demand for ‘maw’ and a report carried out by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has found that this demand is pushing not only the totoaba fish, but also the vaquita porpoise, toward extinction at an alarming rate. Both of these species are classed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List and possibly the worst part is that the vaquita porpoise is not even a targeted species. Totoaba can be found in the Upper Gulf of California and this is also where small populations of vaquita porpoise still survive, but are being caught in the snares and glints that are used to catch the totoaba fish.
At the beginning of the 1900s, the totoaba fish, which can grow up to 2m in length, was hunted on a huge scale, with its bladder being in high demand across Asia. However, as a result of this high demand, they eventually began to suffer from overfishing. This overfishing, coupled with habitat degradation, led to the species being listed as critically endangered. As a result, trading in totoaba fish became illegal under both US and Mexican law and although the species began to show some recovery under this protection, in 2013, poaching levels once again increased.
Maw can be harvested from approximately 34 species, with the largest and the thickest swim bladders of the biggest fish being the most valuable. It has been suggested that the recent resurgence in the trade of totoaba is a result of its perceived connected to the giant yellow croaker, which is also highly valued in Asia, and also critically endangered. Both yellow croaker and totoaba are also known as ‘money maw’ due to their high value and rarity. As a result of the lack in yellow croakers, the totoaba has replaced it as the ‘king fish’ in the popularity stakes.
There have been numerous calls for a crackdown in the trade of totoaba, which is threatening both of these already endangered species. Less than 100 vaquita porpoise are estimated to be left in the wild, though some argue that this number is closer to 50. Vaquita are so rare that many fishermen believe them to be a myth, as they have never seen them in the wild. The vaquita porpoise is thought to be declining at a rate of 18.5% each year and with such a small population, their genetic health is likely to have declined dramatically due to inbreeding. It is thought that if the illegal trade in maw is not stopped soon, vaquita could join the extinction list by as soon as 2018, closely followed by the totoaba.
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