Africa’s key marine species continues to be threatened as east Asia’s insatiable appetite for delicacies continues to produce a never-ending list of consumer demands.
Wildlife trade NGO, TRAFFIC, has reported an increase into the trade of seahorses, sea cucumbers and fish maw.
But very little data has been collected regarding fish maw, which has boomed in the last five years.
The main culprits threatening to decimate more marine species are “inadequate regulation [and] stretched law enforcement”, which not only affects marine ecosystems, but local, vulnerable fishing communities and tourism as well.
Dubbed the marine product “gold rush”, TRAFFIC explained that these marine products, along with shark fins and abalone, act as status and wealth symbols.
Fried seahorses being sold as a delicacy in Wangfujing Street, Beijing. Picture: iStock
Although sea cucumbers are caught and exported from more than 30 African countries, only six countries have reported trade in the last 10 years. Picture: Po Wing Food Market Inc website
The organisation found that 80% of fish maw exported to Hong Kong came from African coastal states, namely Tanzania, Madagascar, Kenya and South Africa.
And this disturbing new trend is increasing rapidly, but very little research has been done on just how much fish maw is being consumed, what species are being used, and why this trade has increased so quickly, TRAFFIC programme coordinator Markus Burgener told The Citizen.
Fish maw is the dried swim bladder of large fish, and is considered part of the “big four” east Asian delicacies of the sea.
Fish maw sold in a market. Picture: Sare Khong/New Malaysian Kitchen
It does not always taste fishy, and is used to absorb the flavours of other ingredients in dishes such as soups and stews. Male bladders are more favourable than female ones, and are used to boost collagen and blood circulation.
Despite massive data gaps, fish maw is known as “cocaine of the sea”, and averages $190 (R2783,92) per kilogram – $180 more than what the average fish weighing more than 50kg fetches.
West African countries have been earmarked as the main exporting culprits, but they are not be the only ones.
Burgener said he first picked up on an increase in fish maw on a visit to Hong Kong in 2018. Before then, he had not seen any fish maw in markets, but during this visit, he said at least 50 dried seafood shops were advertising it to consumers.
Fish maw being soaked for soup. Picture: Sara Khong/New Malaysia Kitchen
TRAFFIC began to look at maw trades in 2019, and then began to note how little information on the import and export of fish maw there was.
Burgener said because the fish maw trade had not yet been properly investigated or documented, it is not known what fish is used.
Po Wing Hong Food Market Inc says on their website that croaker or sturgeon fish species are preferred, especially the former, which has “higher nutritional value”.
Fish maw likely comes from male sturgeons, but more research is needed. Picture: iStock
It is also not understood exactly how the trade operates yet.
Burgener said maw may be coming from fish that would have been discarded anyway, which was not necessarily a bad thing. But the knowledge gap and lack of import data from Hong Kong was worrying, he added.
He noted that for such a booming and expensive trade, it was “strange” that so much data was lacking.
The fish may come from coastal villages who depend on Chinese trade to survive.
This, Burgener said, was similar to communities living on the outskirts of the Kruger National Park, where rhino poaching runs rampant. In these areas, there is very little job opportunities, so even though communities thought to be selling maw to Chinese traders would know the long-term impacts of overfishing and species extinction, they also need to subsist.
Although countries in West Africa have been targeted, Burgener said there was a fear that more coastal states would join the trade. This includes South Africa, Namibia and Madagascar.
It is, however, an issue in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya, due to the high levels of illegal fishing on Lake Victoria. This, Burgener said, is the only area where some research had been done, but not enough.
He emphasised the need to raise awareness for this relatively new trade that threatens to push more marine life closer to extinction.
A vendor sells dried fish maw and variety of dried ingredients along the street in Bangkok. Picture: iStock
Due to TRAFFIC not yet knowing which fish species are being targeted for maw, it is also not known what the ecological knock-on effect could be.
But this absence of data should be more worrying, “because we don’t know, we need to be careful, because the negative impacts may be bad in the short and long term”.
“We know enough to know that removing any species usually has a negative impact.”
Burgener said it was not as simple as putting out an Awakeners’ campaign or advertisement.
The issue of raising awareness among consumers is a complicated business, because sensitivity must be applied to the cultural aspects of delicacies in east Asia.
Abalone with an estimated street value of R2.4 million seized in Milnerton, Cape Town, on 18 January 2019. Picture: Supplied
However, he said it was concerning that many new products purport to be medicinal substitutes, meaning consumers would latch on to products such as fish maw for health reasons – even if there are no proven health benefits.
“We need to keep monitoring it as bet we can from the supply and market side, be aware of what is being marketed and sold, and keep educating and raising awareness.”
What is desperately needed is “interventions across the trade chain”, to ensure that consumers are informed and that god regulatory systems are in place to monitor exports and imports.
“It’s about having a suite of different tools for national and international governments, consumers and traders, shared learning and collaboration.”
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