The trouble with China’s new found wealth and middle class is that they are not only eating every animal and fish in their own country, but they are sucking in and killing almost all species from all over the world to satisfy their insatiable lust. Donkeys in Africa have suddenly been turned into meat for the Chinese. We, of course, are losing everything – from seahorses, porcupines, dogs, sharks, tigers, rhinos, bears, every species of fish and wild cat and even insects.
The Chinese kill rare species simply for social prestige. Their local medicine is rubbish, but they continue to kill every animal for it. They use our rhino horns – which are just made of keratin, the same as our toenails – for everything, from headaches to cancer. Does that make sense? Likewise, shark fins are just lumps of flesh with no food value. But they have become a symbol of riches and so India loses millions of its sharks for this valueless soup. But, because their government has no laws and no intention of controlling the trade, the illegal market thrives
Like shark fin, fish swim bladders are an ingrained part of traditional Chinese culture, used to signal wealth and opulence.
A swim bladder is an air sac which enables fish to maintain depth without floating or sinking. The swim bladder is inflated when the fish wants to move up and deflated when it wants to return to the depths. The swim bladder is also used as an echo chamber to produce or receive sound. Fish can find mates, signal danger, sense vibrations, and find food / prey, by sensing sound under water. Fish make a range of sounds, from grunts and clicks, to honks, whistles, and hums. They use muscles located near their swim bladder to make drumming sounds.
Unfortunately, this swim bladder is what a lot of fish are killed for.
The bladders are extracted, dried and turned into a product called isinglass, which is a collagen utilised in the refining of alcoholic drinks like beer and wine and foods. Beer is produced by fermenting starches, and a clarifying agent is used to get rid of the cloudy appearance. Non-animal products do exist – seaweed, bentonite or kaolin, diatomaceous earth, cellulose pads, micro-porous plastic films – but dead fish are cheaper and alcohol is much more important than fish.
On top of this come the Chinese demands.
The Chinese use fish bladders in – what else? – traditional medicine. Their own fish, the Bahaba, a resident of the Yangtse river estuaries, has been hunted to extinction because of the immense monetary value placed on its swim bladders – costing more than gold.
Now the Chinese have targeted the Totoaba fish of the Gulf of California – 13,000 kms away.
The Totoaba fish stomach, or “maw”, is valued for its high collagen content, and the Chinese believe its swim bladders can boost fertility, improve circulation and skin vitality.
The Totoaba grows up to two metres in length and 100 kg in weight. Individuals may live up to fifteen years. As Totoaba spawn only once a year, the population growth is very slow. The Totoaba spawn in the Colorado River delta and then the young fish swim out to the Gulf.
The Totoaba is an endangered fish, protected against fishing by law. But, that makes no difference to the Chinese.
Fishermen get thousands of dollars for a totoaba bladder. So they bring in the fish, cut out its stomach and leave the carcass to rot. The demand is so high that cartels of Mexicans have formed, and one Mexican fisherman can make more than a month’s salary if he sells just one to a trafficker who then sells it, for more than the price of pure heroin, to the Chinese.
The Environmental Investigation Agency found totoaba bladders openly for sale in markets in Guangzhou, China, and Hong Kong. Most sellers knew it was illegal. Online, researchers found traffickers sharing tips about the best routes to smuggle them in.
A totoaba fish bladder sells between $7,000 and $14,000 - and soup containing the organ may go for $25,000 in China, according to a Mexicali Digital report. Both, Mexican drug cartels and US smugglers, transport the fish.
Mexican regulators seized illegal totoaba bladders worth an estimated $2.25million in 2013 alone.
Jason Xie of Sacramento was accused last year of taking delivery of 169 bladders on March 30, 2013 in a hotel parking lot in Calexico. Xie told investigators he was paid $1,500 to $1,800 for each of 100 bladders in February.
Anthony Sanchez Bueno of Imperial was charged with the same crime, after authorities said he drove the 169 bladders across the downtown Calexico border crossing in three coolers. He told investigators he was to be paid $700.
In Mexico, Samuel Gallardo Castro was murdered in June due to an outstanding $1million fish payment. Four traffickers were caught.
“It's aquatic cocaine,” Jay Barlow, a marine mammal expert at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told the Associated Press.
The Totoaba isn’t the only casualty of the Chinese bladder boom. The vaquita is a porpoise that lives only in one patch of the upper Gulf of California. It is the smallest member of the dolphin, whale, and porpoise family, growing to five feet and 55 kg. It avoids boats and is very evasive. Vaquitas are usually alone, unless they are accompanied by a calf.
Vaquitas are easily tangled and killed in gillnets used to catch Totoabas, because the mesh is about the same size as a vaquita’s head. Acoustic monitoring data shows a 67% drop in vaquita activity between 2011 and 2014. Fewer than 60 are left, making them the most endangered marine mammal in the world. The Mexican government has banned gillnet fishing throughout the vaquita’s reported range, as well as given subsidies for fishermen who stay within the law. But no one chasing the Totoaba is listening.
India is also selling huge amounts of fish maw from Kolkata, Mumbai, Veraval, Porbandar, Chennai and Puducherry. We export dried fish maws, of Eel / Vilanku / Vam, Jew fish / Kathalai / Ghol, Thread fish / Kala / Dara, Giant croaker / Panna / Kote / Kooth, Cat fish / Kelru / Petara / Singala, Bekti / Giarto perch / Waigeu sea perch, and Lizard fish, to Hong Kong and other countries. Many of these fish will be extinct in the next twenty years.
What is the world doing about China?