Schooling Hammerheads, Cocos Island, Costa Rica


Shark-fin soup, promoted by Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in the Chinese diaspora, is driving shark species to the edge of extinction. This is widely documented. But what about other marine species impacted by bogus TCM practices?

In August 2017, the Ecuadorian navy seized a Chinese-flagged ship with an extraordinary catch in its holds—an estimated 6,600 sharks, including endangered Hammerheads and Silky Sharks. The vessel was thought to be a ‘mother-ship,’ which received transfers from smaller poaching vessels. Those vessels were among a fleet of 300 Chinese ships in international waters facing the Galapagos Islands. The mother-ship was intercepted inside the waters of the Galapagos–one of largest marine sanctuaries in the world, and renowned for its preservation of rare shark species. Industrial fishing is banned within the marine sanctuary (only artisanal fishing by locals is allowed). The Galapagos has few resources to patrol the immense area of the sanctuary—it was only through pure luck that this vessel was intercepted. Vessels enter the sanctuary at night to fish illegally, making patrolling even more difficult.

Bottled shark fins, for sale in TCM store, Hong Kong

The fins from these sharks were destined for the banquet dinner table in the Chinese diaspora—where shark-fin soup is regarded as a status symbol, and is touted by TCM as a general health tonic—even a cure for cancer. Shark fin is cartilage that has no taste—that come from other additions, like chicken broth. Figures vary on the number of sharks culled worldwide in this trade: estimates range from 70 to 100 million sharks a year.

The waters off the Pacific coast of South and Central America are considered Ground Zero for sharks, as these waters hold the largest concentration of many shark species. The Galapagos Archipelago, a fully protected area, lies 930 km from the coast of Ecuador, and is patrolled by Ecuador. Further out, on the High Seas, there is no such patrolling. Five nations dominate the global High Seas fishing trade: China, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and Spain. High Seas fishing is more like piracy, with unregulated and illegal fishing methods used, like longlining and gill netting, which indiscriminately snag everything in their path as they strip-mine the ocean.

Cocaine of the Sea

In April 2018, within a space of five days, customs at Mexico City International Airport seized suitcases from two Chinese citizens heading for mainland China. The suitcases were stuffed with over 750 dried swim bladders of the Totoaba, a large fish endemic to the Gulf of California, and fully protected by law. The dried-out innards of the fish were destined to be sold into the TCM market at astronomical prices. It is estimated that the haul from these two Chinese citizens alone would be worth US$500,000 back in China. And that is just a fraction of what has been intercepted.

dried Totoaba swim bladders, openly on sale in Guangzhou

A man holding a Totoaba. Below is a dead Vaquita Porpoise, caught in the same gillnet. Photo by Omar Vidal.

Totoaba swim bladders have been dubbed ‘the cocaine of the sea,’ and indeed, Mexican drug cartels are involved in the illegal trafficking. Fishermen in Mexico routinely rip out the Totoaba swim bladder and discard the rest of the sizeable fish. So here’s the million-dollar question: Why is this fish bladder worth so much, and does it actually work? The answer to the first question is clever promotion by TCM spin doctors. The answer to the second question is No. In the fallout from this nefarious trade, the rare Vaquita Porpoise has been trapped as by-catch in gillnets, and is headed for extinction–with just a dozen thought to be left at last count. In July 2017, in a last-ditch stand to save the Vaquita, the Mexican government banned the use of gillnets, which capture everything in their deep path.

Out-of-control TCM

Totoaba swim bladder has only been on the TCM radar for the last 70 years—after the Chinese Croaker went extinct in Chinese waters. The Chinese Croaker was on the TCM menu for hundreds of years, but after it completely disappeared, the TCM Mafia simply moved onto the next species—the Totoaba, which come from the Croaker family.

New on the TCM radar: Seamoths and Manta-ray gills. Both have only been added in the last 30 years. Neither has any known medicinal or health benefits. Nor do these particular species appear in any TCM pharmacopeia. The whole trade has been cooked up by fishermen, restaurant owners and TCM quacks in the interests of high profits. In fact, some species will set the consumer back, health-wise. 

Manta-gill soup

Due to its ability to filter extraordinary amounts of seawater through its gills to sift out food, the Manta Ray’s gills are touted in TCM as being greatly beneficial in cleansing toxins and boosting circulation. Only one problem: humans do not have gills. More disturbingly, Manta gill plates are claimed to deal with women’s problems during pregnancy and while lactating–as in helping to produce more milk. When WildAid did testing, they found high levels of cadmium, arsenic, lead and other toxins present in Manta gill plates. Manta and Mobula ray populations in the ocean in some regions have plummeted by 30 percent—and in other regions, by 80 percent, all because of this bogus soup.

The range of cures for these magical manta gills grows longer by the year: treatment for coughs and respiratory problems, clearing the lungs, health support for heavy drinkers and smokers, improving lactation, the list of twaddle goes on. This coincides with a significant rise of pollution and airborne toxins–and tainted food scares–in China. Coming out of nowhere, killing mantas for their gills has morphed into a $30-million-a-year trade.

Even though remedies like Manta Ray gills or Seamoths are never prescribed in reputable TCM hospitals, there is nothing to stop unscrupulous restaurants or salesmen from advocating their supposed health benefits. Indeed, TCM authorities in China turn a blind eye to the booming trade in rare animal parts.  

These TCM concoctions have, at best, theatrical placebo benefits, but are variously touted to have aphrodisiacal or circulatory enhancement properties–and even claimed to cure serious ailments. TCM presents no scientific track record for its animal-based products—just old folk-myths and superstition. And yet these beliefs are responsible for the culling of staggering amounts of sharks, seals, manta and mobula rays, sea cucumbers, seahorses, pipefishes, seamoths, and other valuable marine life. For an aphrodisiac, the end-user would be much better off eating oysters. Or taking Viagra, which has been proven to work, and whose synthetic manufacture does not require the wholesale slaughter of sea life.

Seahorse Tonic Wine, Vietnam

The epicentre of the TCM animal-based trade is Hong Kong and Guangzhou. It is estimated that over 55 tonnes of seahorses (representing at least 25 million individuals) are taken annually from the oceans, from at least 13 species of seahorse–for use in TCM tonics and potions, and for use live in the aquarium trade. The real figure could be far higher–like 37 million Seahorses–but in any case, removing 25 million a year is not sustainable. Although supposedly protected as an endangered species by CITES, the decimation of seahorses goes on. They show up in TCM soups in China and in Tonic Wines in Vietnam, promoted for boosting the male libido. In Guangzhou, some restaurants serve up several endangered species in the same soup: Seahorses, Pipefish, and Manta-ray gill plates. This is what could be called ‘Endangered Species Soup.’

A Sea Change

A strong belief in the magical powers of Traditional Chinese Medicine is ingrained into the Chinese mentality—and there appears to be little concern for wildlife going extinct in this trade. In the interest of saving valuable marine species from extinction, and thus preserving marine ecosystems, the greatest challenge lies in changing the mindset of Chinese end-users of TCM animal-based products. That requires a Sea Change in the way the Chinese diaspora thinks. It needs to start with educating youth in China. Various Hong Kong NGOs are pushing the idea of fin-free wedding celebrations: so skip the shark-fin soup on the menu. The NGO WildAid uses celebrity ambassadors to get their message across: these include well-known actors, singers and sports stars from Asia. There are plant-based TCM remedies for the same ailments harped on about, such as Horny Goat Weed to enhance sexual potency–and effective synthetic remedies like Viagra. Plant-based herbal ingredients for TCM are for the most part not endangered–this trade appears to be sustainable, as plants can be farmed.


Even after ingredients like tiger bone and rhino horn have been banned in China, the State turns a blind eye to under-the-table trading. China’s state-backed TCM practices need to be regulated to get tiger bone, pangolin scales, rhino horn and shark-fin products taken off the shelves, and prosecuted as false advertising, with heavy penalties imposed.

Quoted in Time Magazine, Lixin Huang — who is both executive director of  the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine and an animal-conservation activist — said he wants strict regulation and heavy penalties to ‘completely separate’ the practice of TCM in reputable clinics from the animal-based ‘folk remedy’ merchants. And yet there does not seem to be the political will in China to do that.


–This material is excerpted from Planet Ocean Blues, by Michael Buckley. This digital photobook is about the decimation of valuable marine species used in bogus Traditional Chinese Medicine practices. Planet Ocean Blues is available on Amazon Kindle and Apple Books platforms.


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