fly fishing totoaba

by Scott Sadil

We’re dropping jigs down to a high spot north of Isla San Luis, in the upper reaches of the Sea of Cortez, when my host, Larry Hansen, founder and head honcho of Pacific Sportfishing Alliance, wrestles a chrome-bright white seabass into range of Captain Juan’s long-handled gaff.

Soon afterward, Giselle, Larry’s wife, hauls up what looks to be another one of the same – until Captain Juan identifies it, instead, as a totoaba.

“You can tell by the tail,” he says, hoisting it carefully, by hand, over the gunwale. 

Totoaba? Now there’s a story. It’s hard to know where to begin.

When I was young, totoaba were classified as the all-but-extinct granddaddy of the Cynoscion genus of popular inshore gamefish. Imagine, if you can, a 200-pound weakfish, spotted seatrout, or white seabass. Really. Taxonomists now place totoaba, or totuava, in its own separate genus. But it’s still the biggest fish, by far, in the North American drum family – or it would be if populations weren’t so severely depleted.

Some of the culprits are old friends. Once local commercial fishermen linked ice trucks to  north-of-the-border markets, they moved from baited hand lines to gill nets to the well-documented use of dynamite. At the same time, flows of fresh water into the Colorado River delta, water integral to the totoaba’s annual spawning and rearing life cycle in the northern reaches of the Sea of Cortez, were all but eliminated by upstream stateside dams.

white seabass
White Seabass

Plus – and here the story takes on a life of its own – local fishermen discovered, through Chinese field laborers in Mexicali, a market for the totoaba’s dried buche, orair bladder, an essential ingredient in an exotic soup associated with, among other things, status, health, and virility.

That market —  illegal beginning in the mid 1970s, when totoaba were listed as critically endangered – still exists. Big time. Law enforcement regularly intercept smuggled bladders, dried and stacked like sheets of cardboard, valued in millions of dollars.

But there’s even more to the story: Enter the vaquita, the world’s smallest, rarest, and now most endangered marine mammal.

Isla San Luis, Sea of Cortez
Isla San Luis, Sea of Cortez

Not described in scientific literature until 1958, the vaquita porpoise shares with totoaba the northern-most reaches of the Sea of Cortez. At 60-150 pounds, a vaquita isn’t much bigger than today’s undersized totoaba. Where gill nets are used in illegal totoaba fishing, driven by the trade in illegal totoaba air bladders, vaquita end up as a by-catch, tangled in and drowned by the nets.  In 1987, there were an estimated 567 vaquita; 20 years later, 150.

Current estimates claim the vaquita population – all the vaquita in the whole wide world – may now be fewer than a dozen individuals.

White Seabass
White Seabass

And, finally, the latest: Just last month, the Standing Committee of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (aka, CITES) voted to permit an aquaculture facility in Mexico to market captive-bred totoaba.  Conservation groups were appalled: Their fear is that permitting the export of totoaba meat will trigger more illegal poaching, increasing the numbers of wild fish – and air bladders – entering the market, while killing off the few remaining vaquitas.

Said Zak Smith, director of international wildlife conservation at the National Resources Defense Council, “All the evidence shows that larger totoaba swim bladders are the most coveted and lucrative, and can only be found in the wild where fishing for totoaba kills vaquita.

So it goes. If there’s a moral to the story, I’ll let someone else name it.

Gray’s Angling Editor Scott Sadil isn’t sure why he still keeps a collection of sea-lion teeth from a butchering site he discovered once in the sand dunes near Punta Santa Rosalillita.