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Fish Bladders Are Actually a Thing People Smuggle, And They’re Worth a Lot of Money

One bladder from the totoaba macdonaldi fish can garner $5,000 in the United States, and over $10,000 in Asia

Image: USGS

California authorities are trying to crack down on smugglers shipping fish bladders across the border. That’s right, fish bladders are a thing that people smuggle.

In fact, they’re worth a ton of money. One bladder from the Totoaba macdonaldi fish can garner $5,000 in the United States and over $10,000 in Asia. The bladders are mainly used in Chinese food, like soups. Often the fish are simply stripped of their bladders and left on the beach, meat and all, since the traders don’t care about the meat, and being caught with it would be a liability.

Now, we’re not talking about the same kind of bladder that a human has. The prized organ on the totoaba isn’t full of urine. It’s the fish’s swim bladder, an organ that fills with gas to change the buoyancy of the fish, allowing it to ascend and descend in the water.

From the outside, the Totoaba macdonaldi isn’t a particularly striking fish. They’re big, weighing up to 220 pounds and getting up to 6.5 feet long. The species is endangered throughout its range, which spans the California coast, says NOAA, mostly because of fishing for this prized bladder. And the Chinese species of the same fish was eaten to extinction, which is why suppliers are turning to the U.S. population.

Scientific American reports that trade in U.S. totoaba bladders is heating up:

In the latest case that led to criminal charges, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer inspecting a car at the Calexico-Mexicali port of entry, about 130 miles east of San Diego, found 27 totoaba bladders hidden under floor mats in the back seat of a car, U.S. prosecutors said in a statement.

The Washington Post chronicles several other cases:

Jason Xie, 49, of Sacramento was accused of taking delivery of 169 bladders on March 30 in a hotel parking lot in Calexico, about 120 miles east of San Diego. Xie told investigators he was paid $1,500 to $1,800 for each of 100 bladders in February.

Anthony Sanchez Bueno, 34, of Imperial was charged with the same crime after authorities said he drove the 169 bladders across the downtown Calexico border crossing in three coolers. He told investigators he was to be paid $700.

Song Zhen, 73, was accused of storing 214 dried totoaba bladders in his Calexico home.

“These were rooms that didn’t have furnishings,” U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy said. “In every room, fish bladders were dried out over cardboard and papers.”

The bladders found in Zhen’s house could be worth over $3.6 million on the black market.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Two Americans Charged in Narwhal-Tusk Smuggling Ring Bust
Smuggler Caught With 10 Percent of an Entire Species

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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