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Traditional Chinese medicine kills dolphins

I am not a fan of Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Very few of its medical claims ever amount to anything. Most of it isn’t very traditional and doesn’t work, like acupuncture. Worse yet, TCM is involved in the destruction of rare animals like the African rhino and other endangered animals. Now, we find that Traditional Chinese Medicine kills dolphins – just to push a “medicine” that has no evidence supporting its use.

Let’s look at this recent story where purveyors of TCM have indirectly lead to the collapse and near extinction of a beautiful ocean going mammal. Per usual with TCM, it’s a tale of greed and junk medicine. 

Traditional Chinese medicine kills dolphins


So let’s take a look at this story that has recently come into the view of environmentalists, and, people like me, who can’t abide junk medicine.

The vaquita dolphin, the smallest cetacean (whales and dolphins) on the planet, is endemic to a small the northern reaches of the Gulf of California, an arm of the Pacific Ocean the separates Baja California from the rest of Mexico. And the dolphin has the cutest look on it’s face (not scientific) – probably could replace some of the cat memes on the internet.

Traditional Chinese medicine kills dolphins
Cute, aren’t they?

The vaquita, which averages about 140.6 cm in length (about 55 inches) is tiny compared to other cetaceans, like more common dolphins, which maybe up to twice as long.

The vaquita has declined to about 60 individuals in the most recent survey from about 600 just 20 years ago. The decline of the dolphin results from several factors – damming of the Upper Colorado River which has reduced (and in some years, eliminated) fresh water infusion into the Gulf of California. The vaquita rely on food that flourished in the brackish water where the Colorado River entered the sea.

Of course, as population numbers drop, there are fewer breeding contacts. Moreover, as the population falls, genetic variability is reduced through the bottleneck effect, which can lead to the extinction of the species. And like a runaway feedback loop, inbreeding depression leads to lower fitness, which leads to lower numbers of progeny, which leads to the death of the species.

However, if it were only these issues, bad enough, why am I talking about Traditional Chinese Medicine?

Because like many stories, there are many layers. TCM has become involved with the marketing of fish bladders (a specialized organ in fish to regulate buoyancy) from a species of fish called the totoaba, which is endemic to the northern Gulf of California, like the vaquita. Wealthy Chinese have used these bladders, called “fish maws,” to make soups that are believed to reduce the discomfort of pregnancy and cure joint pain. There is absolutely no evidence supporting either claim.

A single bladder used to fetch US$137,000  in Hong Kong as recently as 2011. One bladder now is worth US$26,000 today. Even with this price drop, totoaba fish bladders has got to make the fish one of the most valuable on the planet at those prices. And for traditional Mexican fisherman, this must feel like they’re catching gold.

At first, the totoaba was “sustainably” fished by traditional methods, like long lines or harpoons. They were caught as food sources for locals in the area, and extra fish meat was shipped to the USA. The swim bladders were removed and shipped to TCM retailers in the USA.

Then, when the market for the totoaba swim bladder exploded after World War II, overfishing on a commercial scale commenced. Instead of a sustainable fishery, which fed local and international markets, the fish were pulled out of the Gulf of California, their swim bladders removed, and the fish left to rot in the water or on the beach.

Ironically, as a result of the overfishing for these swim bladders that have precisely no medical value, along with the destruction of the fresh water infusion because of the greed of Colorado River water users, the totoaba is also a critically endangered species.

The totoaba really hasn’t much to do with the vaquita dolphin. It’s not the major food source for the dolphin, which prefers squid, small fish, and other crustaceans in shallow lagoons.

Unfortunately, the modern fishing methods employed to catch the few remaining totoaba uses gill nets. Used properly under strict regulations, gill nets can be used in an environmentally safe way. I’m not a gill net expert, but I’m not sure I think it can be used in any environmentally safe way.


However, because the totoaba are so rare and so expensive, despite Mexico’s strong environmental laws and policing in the area, illegal fisherman use gill nets, while avoiding the police. And these nets, being used in such an indiscriminate manner, have a lot of by-catch, like vaquita dolphins.

So there you have it. Traditional Chinese medicine kills dolphins – and is killing off another rare species of animal. All in the name of junk medicine. All to support pseudo-medicine for wealthy Chinese thousands of kilometers away.

Let’s not blame just China. Mexico allows the fish bladders to be exported – and the Mexican fisherman make some good money from taking them from totoaba, around US$1500, which isn’t bad money for these fishing communities. Mexico, with grants from environmentalist groups, is trying to offer up to US$70 million to move away from this destructive fishing.

The United States is also involved, and in not a good way. Setting aside the travesty of all of the damns along the Colorado River, which allows more evaporation of water than the annual flow of the River itself, the USA allows the importation of the fish bladders from Mexico, some for use by believers in TCM in the USA, along with transshipment to China – who, from all that we can tell, could care less about these issues.

I’m always offended when humans cause the imminent destruction of a beautiful species of mammal, like the vaquita. That it’s done to support pseudoscience and medical woo – well, I just want to cry.

So for those of who think that Traditional Chinese Medicine is a real medicine? Think of the rhinos. Think of the vaquitas. And remember there is little evidence that any of it works to help humans.




Michael Simpson
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