Totoaba, Totoaba macdonaldi

The Totoaba, Totoaba macdonaldi, whose common Spanish name is also totoaba, is a largest member of the Croaker or Sciaenidae Family, known collectively as berrugatas and corvinas in Mexico. This is the species in the genus Totoaba, and it is found only in Mexican waters of the Pacific.

The Totoabas have elongated compressed fusiform bodies. They have a dusky silvery coloration with darker fins. The juveniles are spotted. Their head is pointed and features moderately-sized eyes, a large oblique mouth, and a slightly projecting lower jaw. They do not have chin barbels, however, both their chin and snout have 5 pores. Their gill covers are smooth. Their anal fin has a short base with two spines and 7 or 8 rays, with the second spine being approximately two-thirds the length of the first ray; their caudal fin is slightly straight; their dorsal fin is strongly notched with 10 spines followed by another spine and 23 to 26 rays; and their pectoral fins are exceedingly long. They have 15 to 20 gill rakers and are covered with rough scales.

The Totoabas are a demersal species found in shallow coastal waters at depths up to 80 feet. They reach a maximum 200 cm (6.5 feet) in length and 100 kg (220 pounds) in weight but fish approaching that size have now vanished. 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 a lifespan of up to twenty-five years.

In Mexican waters the Totoaba has a very limited distribution being found only in the northern half of the Sea of Cortez. They enter river basins, specifically the Colorado River Basin, in the early spring to spawn. 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.

The Totoaba 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 parvipinnisand the Yellowtail Corvina, Cynoscion stolzmannihowever, 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 formerly supporting an important commercial fishing industry (2,260 tons of Totoaba fillets were exported to the United States in 1942 having been harvested with both gill nets and dynamite) and sport fishery, populations in the Sea of Cortez 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 and low salinity waters for spawning. With a 96% diminished water flow and an increase in salinity by 35 ppm the Colorado River has become a hypersaline environment, which has altered the life history of the species. A total ban on fishing was declared by the Mexican Government in 1975. 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 Totoabas’ small swim 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, they are sold on the black market commanding prices of $1,000 to $5,000 per bladder in the United States and over $10,000 each in Asia. Current smuggling penalties for killing Totoaba include maximum penalties of up to twenty 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 of this effort are currently unknown.

Totoaba, Totoaba macdonaldi.  Fish caught from coastal waters off San Felipe, Baja California, ca. 1954. Weight ca. 91 kg (200 pounds). Photo courtesy of Tony Reyes, San Felipe.

Totoaba, Totoaba macdonaldi. Underwater photography taken of a live brood Totoaba at the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California, Ensenada, Baja California. Photo courtesy of Gene Kira.

Totoaba, Totoaba macdonaldi. Fish caught from coastal waters off  Rocky Point (Puerto Penasco), Sonora, October 1999. The fish was released. Photo courtesy of Stuart Burnett.

Totoaba (4)

Totoaba, Totoaba macdonaldi. Fish caught off the beach, at Playa San Rafael, Baja California, March 1998. The fish was released. Catch, photo and identification courtesy of Matt Quilter.

Totoaba, Totoaba macdonaldi: Fish caught from coastal waters off San Felipe, Baja California, April 2014. This fish was released. Catch, photo and identification courtesy of Chris Wheaton, Loreto, Baja California Sur.