Totoaba

Totoaba, Totoaba macdonaldi

The Totoaba, Totoaba macdonaldi, whose common Spanish name also Totoaba, is the largest member of the Croaker or Sciaenidae Family, known collectively as “Berrugatas and Corvinas” in Mexico.

 The Totoaba has an elongated compressed fusiform body. They are a dusky silvery color with darker fins. The juveniles are spotted. The head is pointed with a moderate sized eye, a large oblique mouth with a slightly projecting lower jaw. They do not have chin barbells, however both the chin and the snout have 5 pores. The gill covers are smooth. The anal fin has a short base with two spines and seven or eight rays with the second spine being approximately two-thirds the length of the first ray; the caudal fin is slightly straight; the dorsal fin is strongly notched with 10 spines and 1 spine and 23 to 26 rays; and the pectoral fins are exceedingly long. They have 15 to 20 gill rakers. They are covered with rough scales. The Totoaba is viewed as excellent table fare.

The Totoaba reach a maximum length of 200 cm (6.5 feet) and 100 kg (220 pounds) but fish approaching that size have vanished. They are a demersal species found in shallow coastal waters at depths up to 80 feet. This species is endemic to the Eastern Pacific, and is only found in the central and northern half of the Sea of Cortez. They enter river basins in the early spring to spawn and specifically the Colorado River Basin. After spawning the adults migrate back south along the west coast of the mainland while juveniles remain in the upper Gulf for two years before commencing the migration pattern. Adults mainly feed on large crabs and sardines, and juveniles feed on small fish and small benthic organisms, such as amphipods, shrimp, and crabs. They have life spans of up to 25 years. The Tototaba can be confused with a series of other croakers including the Gulf Corvina, Cynoscion othonopterus, the Orangemouth Corvina, Cynoscion xanthulus, the Scalyfin Corvina, Cynoscion squamipinni, the Shortfin Corvina, Cynoscion parvipinnis, and the Yellowtail Corvina, Cynoscion stolzmanni, however, each of these croakers have pectoral fins that are equal in length or shorter than their pelvic fins.

The Totoaba is currently listed as Critically Endangered facing extinction in the near future. Although once considered abundant, and formally supported an important commercial fishing industry (2,260 tons of Totoaba fillets were exported into the United States in 1942 harvested with both gill nets and dynamite) and sport fishery in the Sea of Cortez populations have been decimated since the 1940s due to loss of spawning habitat from conversion and degradation of the Colorado River Delta via the curtailment of water flow and intensive overfishing. They require warm, low salinity waters for spawning and with the diminished water flow of the Colorado River by 96% both the water temperature and the salinity has increased by 35 ppm and has become a hypersaline environment altering the life history of the species. A total ban on fishing was declared by the Mexican Government in 1975 and this species was placed on the Mexican Endangered Species List and the mouth of the Colorado River was deemed a preservation zone. In 1979 the Totoaba was added to the U.S. Endangered Species list. Although such conservation measures have been implemented, juveniles are casualties as by-catches within shrimp trawling fisheries. The Totoaba’s small fish bladder is highly valued for its high collagen content and some people believe that it can boost fertility and improve circulation and skin vitality. Due to the demand and extremely limited supply of these swim bladders, the Totoaba swim bladders are sold on the black market commanding prices of $1,000–$5,000 per bladder in the United States and over $10,000 each in Asia. Current smuggling penalties for killing Totaba include maximum penalties of up to 20 years in jail with fines up to $250,000. A small size cultivation effort has been in operation in Ensenada, Baja California, for the past few years and some releases into the wild have been conducted. The results from this effort are unknown.

Totoaba, Totoaba macdonaldi: Totoaba near 200 pounds, caught while fishing c. 1954 at San Felipe, Baja California Norte. Photo courtesy of Tony Reyes.
Totoaba, Totoaba macdonaldi: Totoaba near 200 pounds, caught while fishing c. 1954 at San Felipe, Baja California Norte. Photo courtesy of Tony Reyes.
Totoaba, Totoaba macdonaldi: Live brood Totoaba at the Universidad Autónoma de Baja Californi, Ensenada, Baja California Norte, Mexico. Photo courtesy of Gene Kira.
Totoaba, Totoaba macdonaldi: Live brood Totoaba at the Universidad Autónoma de Baja Californi, Ensenada, Baja California Norte, Mexico. Photo courtesy of Gene Kira.
Totoaba, Totoaba macdonaldi: Fish caught while fishing near Rocky Point (Puerto Penasco), Sonora, October 1999. The fish was released. Photo courtesy of Stuart Burnett.
Totoaba, Totoaba macdonaldi: Fish caught while fishing near Rocky Point (Puerto Penasco), Sonora, October 1999. The fish was released. Photo courtesy of Stuart Burnett.

Totoaba (4)

Totoaba, Totoaba macdonaldi: Fish caught this off the beach, at Playa San Rafael, Baja California Norte, March 1998, in about 4 feet of water, using a light spinning rod with 10-pound test and a beat up one-half ounce gold Krocodile. The fish was released. Description and photo courtesy of Matt Quilter.
Totoaba, Totoaba macdonaldi: Fish caught this off the beach, at Playa San Rafael, Baja California Norte, March 1998, in about 4 feet of water, using a light spinning rod with 10-pound test and a beat up one-half ounce gold Krocodile. The fish was released. Description and photo courtesy of Matt Quilter.