OPERATION FAKE GOLD – the Totoaba Trade and the Vaquita Extinction

May 15, 2017, Los Angeles: Elephant Action League (EAL) is proud to release a comprehensive public report detailing another successful undercover investigation performed by our organization.
EAL - Cover Operation Fake Gold smallIn response to the dire circumstances facing the vaquita, the world’s smallest porpoise, and a giant Mexican fish, the totoaba, EAL commenced an investigation, Operation Fake Gold, along the entire illegal supply chain, beginning with the demand side of the illegal totoaba swim bladder trade in China. EAL investigators went undercover in the Shantou area, in Southern-East China, to assess the current level of trade, the attitude of the retailers who illegally sell totoaba swim bladders (or maws), and the price trend.
The vaquita, the smallest porpoise and endemic to the northern Gulf of California, is nearly extinct due to China’s demand for the swim bladders, or ‘maws,’ from the totoaba. By-catch, accidental netting, from the Illegal fishing of totoabas with the use of gillnets, is killing the last few vaquitas. Traditional Chinese medicine purports swim bladder to be a curative for variety of ailments causing demand for totoaba swim bladders to continue. Unfortunately, less than 30 individual vaquitas remain in the Gulf of California, Mexico, the vaquita’s only natural habitat. The totoaba is also considered critically endangered, although current numbers of totoaba is not known – making this a trade causing two potential extinctions.
EAL report - Totoaba maw ChinaThe investigation also aimed to identify trafficking routes and collect leads on how and where totoaba swim bladders (maws) are smuggled into China.
A few primary findings indicate that:
  • Demand for totoaba swim bladders appears to be stable even though the product is illegal, with buyers primarily from Shantou and the greater Guangdong Province of China;
  • Demand is still largely driven by the use swim bladders as a business gift, as well as its traditional medicinal uses for personal health and wedding dowries
  • Pricing varies significantly based on weight, appearance, and whether it is small tube/domestic or big tube/foreign (totoaba) averaging 140,000 Yuan (RMB) per kg (over USD 20,000 per kg)
  • A primary trafficking route for totoaba swim bladders is from Mexico, at times through the US, and then to the Shantou area in China, possibly through transit countries like Hong Kong and Thailand.
  • There is evidence that Chinese nationals/residents in Mexico and the US are playing an important role in facilitating the totoaba swim bladder trade
Operation Fake Gold is a multi-part investigation with the aim of collecting intelligence and investigating the entire supply chain, from China back to Mexico. According to EAL’s Executive Director, Andrea Crosta, “Given the dire circumstances surrounding vaquitas and the issues associated with the totoaba swim bladder trade in Mexico, including possible corruption and involvement of drug cartels, it is vital to fully research, investigate, and map all aspects of the totoaba supply chain, including the players that need to be neutralized.” He goes on to say that, “It is EAL’s intent that the detailed results of Operation Fake Gold facilitate concrete action within all countries involved in the trade.”
By identifying the key players, building actionable case files based on verifiable evidence, and sharing that information with applicable law enforcement authorities, creates pressure on the Chinese, US, and Mexican governments to act quickly and collaboratively to save vaquitas and totoabas from extinction.
Download “Operation Fake Gold – Part I” here: EAL – Totoaba Report May 2017

EAL totoba investigation - undercover footage


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