You may have seen it or read about it. But did you know you are a part
of it? That you can help or harm a twenty-three year conservation program
that has been going on here in Baja?
The totoaba is a 300 pound fish found in Baja waters only. More than
that, in the 700 mile long Sea of Cortez the totoaba is found only in
a 300 mile range which includes the waters fronting San Felipe. Long
time residents recall huge navies of them here and yet on May 21, 1979,
this fish was placed on the world's Endangered Species list.
The totoaba spawn in the Colorado delta region. Juveniles migrate south
after two years, then must survive another six or seven before reaching
sexual maturity. Undisturbed, they have been known to live for 25 years
but today, because of overfishing and shrimp net bycatches, fewer and
fewer live even long enough to reproduce. As fisheries all over the
world are caught in the vortex of increasing demand for seafood and
decreasing fish populations, conservationists recommend government establishment
of networks of marine reserves that can safeguard breeding and feeding
grounds. Experiments have proven protected areas lead to a rapid increase
in fish body size and abundance. Best of all, the spillover from the
reserves, or no-take zones allows fishers to reap direct benefits within
three to five years time.
One of the species that most concerns these conservationists is the
totoaba yet the underlying problem which has led to their decrease is
actually affecting all the Cortez sea life. In 1992 the Mexican Government
proposed to establish a biosphere reserve in local waters and met with
the people of Santa Clara, Puerto Penasco and San Felipe, as well as
the ejido communities in the delta of the Colorado River. As costs and
benefits of the plan were understood, people started first to accept
and later to support the idea with a declaration submitted to the Federal
Government asking for a marine reserve in the Upper Gulf. On June 10th,
1993, the establishment of the first marine reserve in Mexico was announced.
The Colorado Delta and the waters north of the line between San Felipe
and Puerto Penasco have been declared off limits to commercial fishermen.
The agreement to the reserve has opened the way to discussion of future
plans such as the possibility of permanently protecting the waters surrounding
each of the islands in the Sea of Cortez to hopefully insure a constant
safe zone for all of the sea's inhabitants.
So back to us. There is no doubt we are part of the problem. When the
United States diverted the Colorado River the ecological balance in
the Sea was disturbed. Worse yet, United States is Mexico's largest
seafood consumer. And as long as we're buying..... Enter the gill nets,
monofilament netting which snares every swimming creature it encounters,
including totoaba. Think of this as a small happening when compared
with the shrimp nets. For every pound of shrimp caught by net, nearly
10 pounds of other marine life dies and is discarded. What can we do?
Refuse to purchase fresh shrimp after the season closes on April 15
and pray the fishermen will bring their nets to rest, allowing the totoaba
to pursue the lifespan nature intended.
Mexico banned totoaba fishing in 1975 and the U.S. banned imports in
1977 yet black market fishing thrives. Today you find the endangered
totoaba readily for sale in shops and street markets of Arizona and
California. Please don't buy. Avoid any fish over two foot in length,
any with a slightly yellow mouth, any fish labeled "white sea bass."
Report such offerings to Fish and Wildlife and let them take it from
there. If you are a sports fisher, practice catch and release for any
totoaba hooked and know that all of us appreciate your action.
So now on May 17, 2002, we watched the 5th
planting of totoaba in the waters off San Felipe and we wait to
see the result. Picture all 900 species of fish and marine mammals common
here teaming through the gulf. Visualize schools of revitalized totoaba
blasting through the waves, throngs of turtles and manta rays swirling
through the sea, armies of hammerhead sharks patrolling the waters and
clams scattered like stepping stones along the beaches of San Felipe.....
So may it be.
written by Loralie Cecotti
Spelling of Totoaba per UABC or Totuava by the locals