China Is Plundering the Planet's Seas

... by consuming over twelve times more fish than it's admitting to.
China fish banner.jpg
Workers hang dried fish onto poles at a processing facility on the outskirts of Hangzhou, Zhejiang province on December 25, 2012. (Lang Lang)

China might be cracking down on luxury spending in watches, cars, banquets and really foul liquor. But the market for pricey fish parts continues relatively unabated. US border officials recently busted a ring smuggling bladders of an endangered fish used for medicinal Chinese soups (here are some images of these prized bladders). The amount of bladders they seized could have sold for more than $3.6 million, said prosecutors. And there are many other smuggling rings out there.

The totoaba, which is native to the Gulf of California, can grow to six feet long and live up to 25 years. Chinese medicine prizes a tubular organ that regulates the totoabas' buoyancy; the bladder, of sorts, is thought to help promote fertility. According to one report, a similar fish native to Chinese waters called a bahaba, which is also coveted for its bladder, has been known to fetch as much as 3 million RMB ($487,000) per fish -- and there's plenty of evidence of a thriving black market even though it's nearly extinct and listed by the Chinese government as a "protected species" (links in Chinese).

The delicacy that comes from shark fins is far better known than totoaba-bladder soup. And though shark fins are now synonymous with luxury -- shark-fin soup can cost around $100 a pop -- they too are thought to help stimulate blood flow and cure cancer, among other things. As a result of this trade, nearly 100 million sharks are killed each year, say scientists. That's 6.4 percent to 7.9 percent of the shark population each year -- which means they're being killed faster than the rate at which they reproduce. Below are all the countries that export shark fins to Hong Kong, which imported some 10.3 million kilograms of shark fins in 2011:

Spain tops the list, followed by Singapore, Taiwan, Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates.Census and Statistics Department of Hong Kong, via Pew Environment Group

Like totoaba bladder and shark fins, gill rakers of manta rays -- cartilage that filters the ray's food -- are prized for their supposed medicinal properties, so much so that they fetch around $251/kg. The $5 million trade in manta ray gill rakers--almost all of which occurs in Guangzhou, in southern China -- has depleted manta populations so severely that they were classified as endangered . Here's where the most rays (including others besides manta rays) are being caught, via Shark Savers:

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More than just snuffing out more than 5,000 mantas a year, this trade also threatens diving tourism for local economies. The conservation group Shark Savers puts the value that manta rays generate in terms of the tourism they attract at $140 million a year, which would make each manta ray worth more than $1 million over its lifetime.

That tug-of-war is underway in Mozambique. The black market for manta rays that has encouraged rampant plundering may soon threaten the country's tourism -- one of its main industries -- since its mantas are a major diving attraction. One of Mozambique top diving areas, Inhambane, has one of the world's biggest manta populations. And in the last 10 years, the manta's numbers there have thinned by 87 percent, say scientists.

"We're looking at decimation in the next decade or decade-and-a-half. Manta rays are in big trouble along the coastline," Andrea Marshall, director of the Marine Megafauna Foundation, told the Guardian. "If current trends continue, I don't give this population more than a few generations."

Gwynn Guilford is a reporter and editor for Quartz.

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