China in Action: Crackdown on a Totoaba Swim Bladder Smuggling Gang


On December 25, 2018, Chinese Customs announced the results of its crackdown on a totoaba fish maw smuggling gang in 2018, which resulted in the arrest of 16 gang members and the seizure of approximately 980 pounds of totoaba swim bladders, equivalent to an estimated $26.4 million. The case is still under investigation, but preliminary findings revealed that the criminal gang, which operated out of multiple Chinese provinces, illegally purchased the totoaba swim bladders in Mexico’s Gulf of California, and smuggled them in luggage through several countries before arriving in China. This operation is one of the most successful cases for Chinese Customs in combating the smuggling of endangered species.

“Great work by the Chinese Government on meeting its commitment to eradicate the illegal totoaba trade in China.” according to Zak Smith, Senior Attorney, Marine Mammals, Oceans Division, Nature Program. “We hope the Mexican government will implement equally vigorous enforcement efforts to combat totoaba trafficking. We desperately need international cooperation to eliminate trade in tototaba, which is driving the endangered vaquita porpoise, of which there are less than 15 left in the world, to extinction.”

Facing extinction, the totoaba is listed as an Appendix I species under CITES, meaning international commercial trade of the fish is prohibited. Endemic to the Gulf of California in Mexico, the totoaba is poached for Asian cuisine. Illegal totoaba fishing in Mexico also threatens the vaquita, because vaquita become entangled and then drown in gillnets originally set to capture totoaba. Just like totoaba, vaquita is also listed as an Appendix I species, and both have reached the “Critically Endangered” status on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.  

NRDC fights to protect the endangered Vaquita and totoaba. NRDC supported the ban on Mexican seafood imports caught with gillnets in U.S. and facilitated the trilateral enforcement cooperation among China, Mexico and U.S.

Original News Release by China Customs: