The Totoaba

The Totoaba

Ah, November.  That time of year where American fishermen -- outside of tailwater trout bums and winter steelhead junkies -- start to pack it in, break out the tying vise and embrace whatever other sedentary vices that help to keep winter at bay. Then, there is the southern saltwater sector. While the upper crust busy themselves with buying plane tickets to Christmas Island and the Seychelles, the dirtbag contingent load up the SUV's and hammer it across Texas for the tail end of the Redfish season on the coast.  It's all good, and staying stoked is what binds the community together.

Saltwater fly fishing, being a relatively new development compared to the 500+ years of history that trout fishing with flies has, has been driving new explorations in technology and strategy, not to mention travel.  Redfish in particular are a great equalizer, and have been at the forefront of interest as a species for a while now.  The Caribbean Grand Slam of Tarpon, Bones and Permit is a holy grail that anglers daydream about and save up for.  But Redfish, otherwise known as Red Drum, are an everymans salt water quarry --  you can get after them on foot even if you don't have a boat, and beach camping is historically cheap. The bite isn't' on? Water off-temperature?  Pick up some Po' Boys, blast down the coast and chase the hot reports.

Here's the other thing about Redfish: they get big.  Outside of Tarpon and some outlier species like Sails, Makos and Alligator Gar, a big bull Redfish is probably the biggest thing you're reasonably going to get a shot at with a fly rod. Stalking 60lbs of bull Red feeding in knee deep water 75 feet away from you is a world class angling experience, no matter  who you are.

However, there is another, almost unknown, now almost nonexistent -- and much, much larger -- potential sport fish that is off the radar of fishermen in this country, but is the subject of intense conservation efforts just across our southern border.  The Totuava (or more correctly Totoaba, Totuava being a local latinized pronunciation) is a gigantic member of the drum family (Sciaenidae) that lives exclusively in northern Sea of Cortez, otherwise known as the Gulf of California.  Adult Totoaba can grow to three times the size of even the largest redfish, and until about fifty years ago were the apex species of the Gulf, outside of sharks.

Vaquita-and-totoaba-c-NOAA-FisheriesTotoaba are now endangered, and have been protected in Mexico since 1975, with a moratorium on targeted commercial fishing and strict regulations for recreational catch and release.  Several factors have been noted for the decline of the species, most notably the reduction in flow from the Colorado river and delivery to the mouth where it comprises the Colorado River Delta.

Wikipedia cites the following: "The totoaba can grow up to two metres in length and 100 kg in weight. Their diet consists of finned fish and crustaceans. Individuals may live up to fifteen years, but sexual maturity is usually not reached until the fish are six or seven years old. As totoaba spawn only once a year, population growth is slow, with a minimum population doubling time of four-and-a-half to fifteen years.[3] The totoaba spawn in the Colorado River delta, which also serves as a nursery for the young fish.

The Totoaba population is found in two distinct groups. Larval and juvenile stages occupy the Colorado delta, while the adult breeding population lives for most of the year in deeper water towards the middle of the Sea of Cortez. The adult population migrates to the Colorado delta in April and May to spawn. One-year-old totoaba are metabolically most efficient in brackish water of about 20 ppt (parts per thousand) salinity, a level that occurred naturally in the delta before the diversion of water from the river that occurred in the middle of the 20th century."

Local news outlets in coastal communities such as San Felipe in Northern Baja have been focused on the issue and supporting public awareness for some time as well.

"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."

Recent international developments are showing promise for the central problem that is being attributed to the decline of Totoaba.  In 2014, after much coordination with conservancy and research groups on both sides of the border, a test release of water from storage facilities on the US side of the border was conducted, sending water down the channel of the Colorado, and reaching the Sea of Cortez for the first time in decades.

While the release was short lived, the response of the desert and associated riparian habitat was astounding, indicating the resiliency of the ecosystem upstream of the delta. The conservation group Raise the River coalition makes the following attribution to the crucial work by advocate organizations in making the test flow happen.

"The Sonoran Institute's restoration work in the Delta was instrumental in spurring the Minute 319 agreement and the pulse flow event, by demonstrating the resiliency of the Delta's ecosystem and the potential for substantial regional environmental and economic benefits with a modest addition of water."

With future collaborations working toward a sustainable throughput of water down the Colorado, the potential for normalized salinization levels in the delta are a realistic prospect for restoration of spawning grounds for the Totoaba. A thriving ecosystem in the Colorado Delta could help bring back populations of one of the largest saltwater species in the Americas.  Whether or not that could comprise a viable trophy sport fishery is open to tantalizing speculation.


"Video of the exhibition "La Totoaba, Giant of the Upper Gulf of California" presented at the Center for University Studies, CESU, UABC. Based on the research of the Biotechnology and Psycology Unit of the Faculty of Marine Sciences of the Autonomous University of Baja California, for the conservation and repopulation of Totoaba Macdonaldi in the Upper Gulf of California"



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