Black market products in the US: Your patients are possibly buying supplements made from endangered fish

By Claire Wolters | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published December 14, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • A Mexican startup is profiting from collagen supplements made from an endangered fish species.

  • The supplement is marketed for health benefits, but concerns arise over the ethical and environmental impact, with a box priced at around $115.

  • Environmentalists criticize the startup for potential harm to totoaba conservation efforts, and the company's claim of using "100% sustainable totoaba" is disputed.

People are paying a high price for a new collagen supplement made from an endangered fish species. Sold by Mexican startup The Blue Formula, or TB(f), the supplement is branded as “nature’s best-kept secret.” It contains marine collagen from the totoaba fish, naturally found in the Gulf of California in Mexico, and is said to have medicinal properties.[]

TB(f) charges about $115 per box, which comes with 20 packets containing 10 grams of collagen each. According to the company’s website, regular consumption of their product can lead to health benefits like increased skin moisture and elasticity and reduced wrinkles.

But the totoaba is also in peril, with some reports suggesting the fish will move closer to extinction if proper conservation measures are not taken. Now, environmentalists are criticizing TB(f) for harming the totoaba population and warning that the group may be illegally sourcing the fish.[]

Why are people hunting totoaba?

Historically and currently, the totoaba has been hunted for its bladder, which has a high collagen content. Some people believe that eating totoaba bladder, also known as a maw (or “money maw,” due to its value) can boost fertility, circulation, skin vitality, and longevity. Clinical trials have not proved these benefits; they have, however, influenced a soaring black market of totoaba sales.[]

In a 2016 report, researchers from World Aquaculture wrote that “dried swim bladders of totoaba command astronomical prices,” adding that, in Hong Kong, 100 grams of totoaba bladder can cost about $2,600.[]

Just this October, the United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) seized totoaba bladders with an estimated value of $910,000 to $1,365,000 from a ship in Arizona. It was CBP’s second-largest totoaba seizure in Arizona to date.[]

The totoaba: protected but not safe

Totoaba fisheries and hatcheries have been used to increase the totoaba population over the years. But they have not moved the fish off the US’s endangered species list.

“Totoaba are, on paper, one of the best protected fish on earth, but because of ineffective enforcement, these protections have failed to prevent the decline of the population,” World Aquaculture researchers write.

Global overfishing, US aquatic structures (like the Hoover Dam), and black market bladder sales have all contributed to a declining totoaba population, according to reports. Hunting totoaba in the wild also places risks on the vaquita, another endangered fish that can get caught in the same nets.[]

Totoaba poaching has led to “the near extinction of the vaquita porpoise due to its entanglement in illegal gillnets used to catch totoaba,” says DJ Schubert, a senior wildlife biologist at the Animal Welfare Institute. “There are approximately 10–13 vaquita remaining on the planet.”

Totoaba trade timeline

Regulatory bodies have restricted hunting and selling totoaba for years, but not all sales are against the law. 

In Mexico, for instance, totoaba trade is legal with a permit. Vetted totoaba fisheries can apply for a permit, but fish cannot be sourced from the wild. Various barriers to wild totoaba fishing have existed in Mexico since the 1940s. In 1975, the country marked the totoaba as an endangered species.

In the US, it is illegal to trade totoaba. The US has listed totoaba fish as an endangered species since 1979. The US Endangered Species Act prohibits importing, exporting, possessing, selling, or shipping endangered species without a permit. To be approved for a permit, parties typically need to prove that they will use the species for scientific purposes or to support its survival, which Schubert says may be a difficult task for companies selling edible totoaba-based supplements.[]

Internationally, it is legal to trade totoaba in limited circumstances. In a highly criticized decision last year, the Standing Committee of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) granted approval to Earth Ocean Farms, an aquaculture facility in Mexico, for international commercial trade of totoaba fish. The approval was exclusive to Earth Ocean Farms, which sources fish in captivity. CITES’ international trade restrictions have been in place since 1977. In 1977, CITES designated the totoaba as an Appendix 1 species, which previously granted it the highest level of protection.[]

Is TB(f) on the black market?

TB(f) sources its totoaba from Cygnus Ocean Farms (COF), a Mexico-based marine aquaculture company. According to COF’s website, the company began in 2016 with the goal of managing and promoting “the reproduction, sustainable breeding, marketing and repopulation of resources of great ecological importance such as the Totoaba.” However, COF was not granted permission for international sales under CITES’ 2022 agreement with Earth Ocean Farms. 

Environmental groups say that COF does not have the correct permit for international sales, making TB(f)’s business model destructive and potentially illegal.

The company claims otherwise, however. In an emailed statement, it said that its product is “exclusively sold in Mexico, and purchasing it for resale outside the country is the responsibility of the buyer.” The company did not comment on whether it has sold to a broader customer base in the past.

“If The Blue Formula genuinely intended for the product to only be sold in Mexico, then it should restrict sales to only persons residing in Mexico,” Schubert says. “It is irresponsible for any company to put the burden of determining the legality of a product on the consumer.”

Until recently, consumers purchasing the product online could use a drop-down list to select a variety of country codes to deliver to, Schubert adds.

Even in Mexico, where the sale is legal, Schubert says, “it is abhorrent to manufacture a product designated as endangered” by international and US-based agencies.

On its website, TB(f) writes that it uses 100% sustainable totoaba fish and that buying from them supports totoaba conservation efforts.

“We are the first proudly Mexican company dedicated to the sustainable transformation of products obtained naturally from the Totoaba fish,” it wrote in its statement.

Advice for doctors and patients purchasing collagen

While emphasizing that the primary burden should fall on sellers, Schubert discourages doctors and consumers from buying products made from endangered species.

“Consumers should do their due diligence before purchasing any products,”Schubert says. (Schubert suggests conducting independent research or questioning a company about its ingredients and practices.) “If a product contains any part or derivative of an endangered species, consumers should reconsider making such a purchase to avoid the possibility that their choices may be contributing to the further endangerment of the species or jeopardizing other species.”

Fortunately for collagen lovers, there are other sustainable sources out there. Encourage your patients to shop for other kinds of collagen to protect their personal health and that of the planet.

What this means for you

A Mexico-based startup is selling expensive collagen made from an endangered fish species. Talk to patients about environmentally friendly sources of collagen.

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