China customs seizes USD $26 million-worth of swim bladders harvested from the totoaba, a critically endangered fish species. Photo credit: General Administration of Customs of the People’s Republic of China.

China Customs announced today significant results from a multi-month operation to bring down smuggling rings of illegal totoaba swim bladders. Customs offices in Jiangmen and Nanning carried out the operation named “SY608” across numerous cities in Guangdong and Guangxi.

In one of China’s most successful operations combating the illegal wildlife trade, SY608 led to the arrest of 16 individuals representing one of the main trafficking syndicates in totoaba swim bladders. They confiscated 444.3 kilograms of totoaba swim bladders worth an estimated U.S. $26 million.

Though the investigation is still ongoing, preliminary results show the syndicate would purchase the totoaba swim bladders in Mexico then transport them through multiple transit points using suitcases before entering the country to be sold illegally.

“For many years China was not aware of the illegal trade in totoaba bladders,” said WildAid CEO Peter Knights. “But when alerted, they stopped open trade and now they are taking down smuggling rings. Let’s hope their decisive action can help the remaining vaquita porpoises that are literally on the brink of extinction.”

The totoaba is a fish found only in Mexico’s Gulf of California and has been listed as a CITES Appendix I species since 1976, prohibiting international trade in any of its products, and listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 1996.

The totoaba also shares the same habitat – recognized as a biosphere reserve by the Mexican government – with the world’s smallest porpoise, the vaquita. However, decades of destructive fishing practices and recent rampant use of illegal gillnets to poach the totoaba have decimated the vaquita population, which now has fewer than an estimated 20 surviving individuals today.

WildAid is helping to protect the vaquita and totoaba from extinction by educating consumers in China on the far-reaching impacts of this trade, and by providing training to Chinese customs and enforcement officials to aid in the arrest and conviction of totoaba swim bladder traders. Our marine program is also working in the Sea of Cortez in Mexico to improve enforcement of protected areas and prevent unsustainable fishing practices.

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About WildAid

WildAid is a non-profit organization with a mission to end the illegal wildlife trade in our lifetimes. While most wildlife conservation groups focus on protecting animals from poaching, WildAid primarily works to reduce global consumption of wildlife products such as elephant ivory, rhino horn and shark fin soup. With an unrivaled portfolio of celebrity ambassadors and a global network of media partners, WildAid leverages nearly $230 million in annual pro-bono media support with a simple message: When the Buying Stops, the Killing Can Too. 

Journalists on deadline may email communications@wildaid.org