LONG LIVE THE TOTOABA

written by Loralie Cecotti


The totoaba fish planting.
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