China, U.S. and Mexico Collaborate to Protect Endangered Totoaba and Vaquita

Guangzhou, CHINA, 1 December 2016 — A training workshop held in Guangzhou, the capital city of Guangdong Province, was the first concrete step toward fulfilling a promise that United States, China and Mexico made at the recent CoP17 of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to collaboratively combat the illegal Totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi) trade. The workshop – organized by the Chinese CITES Management Authority (CNMA), Bureau of Fisheries of Ministry of Agriculture (BOF) and State Administration of Industry and Commerce (SAIC) – featured information sharing sessions with representatives from Hong Kong SAR, Mexico and the U.S., who shared their hands-on experience and efforts to combat the trafficking.

About 100 enforcement officers from fisheries, market control, customs, and coast guard in Guangdong province attended the workshop, where they learned the conservation status of Totoaba and Vaquita (Phocoena sinus) and to identify Totoaba maw. A mobile version e-tutorial was introduced to help quick on-site identification of Totoaba and its maw.

General agreements were reached on the workshop that for endangered species involved in illegal international trade, the cooperation of origin, transit and destination countries to stop the trade from both supply and demand side is the key strategy. China, US, and Mexico will join hands to enhance habitat conservation, improve local community livelihood, raise public awareness, share intelligence and joint law enforcement to cut the smuggle chain. Experts suggest more deep research for the population dynamics to provide accurate guidance for policy development. NGOs are also welcome to take advantage role of bridge, and calls for other countries to clean their own market to join in international collaboration.

Bladders of Totoaba – a large, endangered fish from the Gulf of California, Mexico – are prized in parts of China. Shrimp fishing and illegal fishing of Totoaba have driven the species toward extinction, along with the critically endangered Vaquita, a small porpoise native to the Gulf, which get caught in gillnets and drown. Experts estimate there are less than 60 individuals left of this unique marine mammal.

Following is a statement from Dr. Meng Xianlin, the standing deputy director at Chinese CITES Management Authority:
“We hold this workshop to bring all stakeholders’ attention to illegal Totoaba trade. China jointly committed to support the CITES decision on Totoaba conservation with Mexico and the United States; we take a step forward to support the implementation of that decision. We expect Mexico and the United States to further strengthen the source conservation and interim regulation in order to protect these two critically endangered species. China joined CITES 35 years ago and has consistently supported the decisions made at the convention meetings. Our efforts have helped strengthen the recovery of such endangered species as Giant panda and Tibetan antelope. We expect similar success for the conservation of Totoaba and Vaquita from the collaboration among the three countries.”

Following is a statement from Zak Smith, director of the wildlife trade initiative at the Natural Resources Defense Council:
“China’s commitment to the success of this workshop and the enforcement it supports is an incredibly important step forward. Only when countries unite will the illegal Totoaba trade be curbed and the Vaquita, the world’s most endangered marine mammal, be saved.

Following is a statement from Steve Blake, the acting China chief representative at WildAid:
“We’re glad to see the great result of this workshop. We will continue to serve as a bridge and provide support to strengthen law-enforcement cooperation between China, the United States and Mexico.”

Totoaba is one of the largest Sciaenidae fish. Vaquita is a rare porpoise. These two endangered species are endemic to the Gulf of California, Mexico. Populations of Totoaba and Vaquita have suffered decline due to the historical overfishing, accidental catching by croakers or shrimp fishery and alteration to the nursery and reproduction area caused by the Colorado River flow control. Both species were listed under CITES Appendix I in 1977 and the international commercial trade of both marine species is banned. The illegal fishing and trafficking of Totoaba maw in recent years has worsened the situation and caused more population loss.

Dried fish bladder or maw is called “Yu Jiao” or “Hua Jiao” in Chinese. The bladder of the Chinese bahaba (Bahaba taipingensis) is considered the best and most valuable portion of the fish by some communities in Southern China. As the Chinese government has banned commercial fishing of Chinese bahaba, local people have begun to supplement their needs with the Totoaba maw which has a similar apperance with that of the Bahabas. The illegal trade of Totoaba maw exists in some cities in Guangdong province, Hong Kong and on online trading platforms.

To strengthen Totoaba conservation, China and the United States committed to combatting Totoaba trade at the U.S. and China Strategic and Economic Dialogues. Additionally, China, the United States and Mexico pledged at the CITES CoP17 in October to curb the illicit poaching and trade in Totoaba. This workshop was the first concrete step in implementing the aforementioned commitment. Two international environmental nonprofit organizations – NRDC and WildAid – provided support for this workshop.