The first time I heard of tortuava was in the ’50s. My dad and his buddies went on a fishing trip to San Felipe targeting the tortuava, a fish that turned out to be sort of a white seabass with a Mexican accent.
As I recall, this was one of my dad’s most successful fishing trips, as he had returned with lots of huge fish . . . by my teenage standards. He told tales filled with glowing descriptions of catching the 50-pound fish in the shallow waters where the Colorado River flowed into the Sea of Cortez. While I don’t remember them fishing there but the one time, when the conversation drifted to good fishing for big fish, the San Felipe trip was sure to be at the top of the list.
LESS THAN FIVE feet long and weighing just 100 pounds, it’s about half the size of a bottlenose dolphin with thick dark markings that circle its mouth and eyes.
Many years later in early 2000, my Baja buddy and WON Columnist predecessor, Gene Kira, invited me to join him on a trip to the Universidad Autonoma de Baja California in Ensenada to visit Totoaba Program Director, Conal David True.
True had developed an impressive successful grow-out facility and was planning on releasing the small totoaba into the 3,600 square-mile Alto Golfo Biosphere Reserve which extended north from San Felipe.
Although his program was wildly successful, Semarnat, the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources, Mexico's federal department of natural resources, turned down their application for a $1.2 million grant request to keep the laboratory operating. According to Kira, “The application was rejected; not one centavo was earmarked for this endangered fish, even though about $25 million was given to roughly 200 other projects in Mexico. Unfortunately, like its cousin the white sea bass, totoaba is highly sought after for its food value, making it a natural target for the indiscriminate gillnets.”
In July of 2016, one of the East Cape restaurants served me fish tacos at dinner. They were delicious! I commented to the chef that the texture of the fish was unusual and tasted like white seabass. His answer astonished me. “It’s totoaba,” he replied smiling. “One of the ‘tuna pens’ where they are growing totoaba broke during the storm. All of the fish escaped and some were caught and brought here.” Apparently, the tuna experiment was not successful because the tuna flesh was not red enough to be valued at a profitable market price according to several sources.
Recently several readers forwarded some disturbing information about the continued depletion of vaquita, Spanish for "little cow," a tiny porpoise that lives in the Sea of Cortez. Less than five feet long and weighing just 100 pounds, it’s about half the size of a bottlenose dolphin with thick dark markings that circle its mouth and eyes.
This little cetacean is relatively new to scientists: it wasn’t officially discovered until 1950, when an ecologist named Ken Norris found a tiny vaquita skull on the beach in Baja. After that first skull sighting it wasn’t until 30 years later, 1985, that a scientist actually saw one in the flesh.
In 1997, the first comprehensive vaquita population survey counted just 567. This year’s population survey estimates only 60 vaquita are remaining. It’s officially the world’s most endangered marine mammal!
Decades of fishing with gillnets is mainly responsible for the decimation of the vaquita. Around 2009, it seemed like progress was being made with new regulations and new research initiatives, but now there’s a new threat to their recovery: totoaba swim-bladders.
But making matters worse, dried totoaba swim-bladders (commonly referred to as ‘maw’) is highly valued in China, alongside other marine products, most notably shark fin, abalone and sea cucumber, prompting a massive increase in illegal fishing in Mexico. While all international trade in totoaba has been banned since 1977, the demand for the dried swim-bladder, or ‘maw,’ of the totoaba as an ingredient in Chinese traditional medicine has seen it dubbed ‘aquatic cocaine’ for the huge sums it commands on the black market.
“The incentive behind the totoaba illegal trade is enormous,” says Catalina Lopez, a researcher with UC Riverside and the Gulf of California Marine Program. “From one single swim-bladder you can get what these fishermen would probably be making in a month.” And gillnets meant for totoaba are just the right size to snare vaquita. Accidental ensnarement in totoaba nets is now the number one threat to the survival of the vaquita.
The Mexican government is going all out to save both vaquita and totoaba. Mexican Marines patrol the waters with boats and helicopters for illegal fishing. They banned gillnet fishing in the entire Sea of Cortez. Fishermen receive compensation if they promise to stop fishing with totoaba nets.
But it’s unclear whether any of these efforts will pay off. Rumors circulate that drug cartels are in on the totoaba black market trade. There isn’t enough money for the level of enforcement needed. And the compensation for law-abiding fishermen is much less than what they get for totoaba bladders.
Some organizations have urged boycotting Mexican fisheries if the trend in vaquita population continues.
“[The fishermen] know that if the vaquita is extinct, the consequences could be significant to them,” Lopez says, and most of the licensed fishermen she’s worked with are willing to comply with new regulations. “But we are fighting against a huge economic incentive.”
And with only 60 vaquita remaining, they are running out of time.