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Startup accused of selling health drink made from endangered fish

6 months ago 665

Mexico's endangered vaquita marina porpoises

Mexico may reduce protection for the world's most endangered marine mammals, vaquita marina porpoises 07:18

Environmental watchdogs accused a Mexico-based startup Thursday of violating international trade law by selling a health supplement made from endangered totoaba fish to several countries including the U.S. and China.

Advocates told The Associated Press they also have concerns that the company, The Blue Formula, could be selling fish that is illegally caught in the wild.

Earth Ocean Farms Marine Fish Hatchery Sustainable Seafood Production Male totoaba breeders in a tank at the Earth Ocean Farms hatchery in La Paz, Mexico, on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023.  Maurico Palos/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The product, which the company describes as "nature's best kept secret," is a small sachet of powder containing collagen taken from the fish that is designed to be mixed into a drink.

Under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, to which Mexico and the U.S. are both signatories, any export for sale of totoaba fish is illegal, unless bred in captivity with a particular permit. As a listed protected species, commercial import is also illegal under U.S. trade law.

Totoaba fish have been listed as an endangered species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act since 1979, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The environmental watchdog group Cetacean Action Treasury first cited the company in November. Then on Thursday, a coalition of environmental charities - The Center for Biological Diversity, National Resources Defense Council and Animal Welfare Institute - filed a written complaint to CITES.

The Blue Formula did not immediately respond to an AP request for comment.

The company claims on its website to operate "100%" sustainably by sourcing fish from Cygnus Ocean, a farm which has a permit to breed totoaba, and using a portion of their profits to release some farmed fish back into the wild.

However, Cygnus Ocean does not have a permit for commercial export of their farmed fish, according to the environmental groups. The farm also did not immediately respond to a request from the AP for comment.

While the ecological impact of breeding totoaba in captivity is much smaller relative to wild fishing, advocates like Alejandro Olivera, the Center for Biological Diversity's Mexico representative, fear the company and farm could be used as a front.

"There is no good enforcement of the traceability of totoaba in Mexico," said Olivera, "so it could be easily used to launder wild totoaba."

Gillnet fishing for wild totoaba is illegal and one of the leading killers of critically endangered vaquita porpoise, of which recent surveys suggest less than a dozen may exist in the wild.

"This hunger for endangered species is killing vaquitas here. Because the mesh size of the gillnets for totoaba is about the size of a head of a vaquita. So they get easily entangled," Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, who works with Mexico's National Institute of Ecology, previously told "60 Minutes."

Mexico Fish Drink Mary Burnham Curtis, a senior forensic scientist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, holds a dried totoaba fish bladder at news conference April 24, 2013, in San Diego.  Elliot Spagat / AP

Gillnetting is driven by the exorbitant price for totoaba bladders in China, where they are sold as a delicacy for as much as gold.

As "60 Minutes" previously reported, the bladders are believed to possess medicinal value which gives them monetary value. The environmental group Greenpeace used hidden cameras to capture Hong Kong merchants trying to sell totoaba swim bladders. The prices went up to $40,000.

The Blue Formula's supplement costs just under $100 for 200 grams.

In October U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized over $1 million worth of totoaba bladders in Arizona, hidden in a shipment of frozen fish. The agency called it "one of the larger commercial seizures of its kind in the U.S."

Roughly as much again was seized in Hong Kong the same month, in transit from Mexico to Thailand.

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