By Gene Kira, April 15, 2002, as published in Western Outdoor News:
This may be your only lifetime chance to catch a totoaba legally. In fact, you'll be encouraged to catch all the totoaba your arms can handle--catch hundreds of them if you want--all in the name of science.
Fish from two to five feet long are expected. A few will be preserved for laboratory study, but most will be tagged and released alive.
These private, one-week cruises out of San Felipe, Mexico, at the northern end of the Sea of Cortez will be officially supervised by a team of biologists from the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California (UABC) in Ensenada.
Totoaba are on the endangered species lists of the U.S. and Mexico, so normally they cannot be caught. However, using special federal permits, we will cruise from the mouth of the Colorado River, south to the Midriff Islands, fishing mainly for totoaba (plus any new species we might discover).
Amazingly, nobody has ever done this before.
Even though all the world's totoaba, Cynoscion macdonaldi, live out their lives within this unique part of the Sea of Cortez, nobody has the slightest idea how many there are, what their migratory patterns are, or where they spawn today.
This giant, super-good tasting relative of the white seabass and croaker (also called "sea trout" on the East Coast) is known to have spawned by the millions at the mouth of the Colorado River. But since there's no river any more, and since shrimp trawlers and gill nets all around the delta kill most fish spawned there anyway, it is a true mystery where all of today's totoaba are coming from.
Yet, there are lots them, and big ones too. I have a report this year of an illegal seven-ton catch being loaded into a truck at Puertecitos. Last year, hundreds of 50 to 60-pound fish were dumped into the sea by a shrimp boat when the Mexican Navy got too close for comfort.
The totoaba is doing its best to survive, but it needs our help. The UABC wants to establish a hatchery in San Felipe. Newborn fry will be given to shrimp farms, where they will quickly grow to about 18 inches long. Half will be sold for market, especially for the air bladders, which are worth $100 per pound on the Chinese market (that's why totoaba were almost wiped out in the first place).
The rest of the fish will be released into the Cortez. At that size, they will not get caught by shrimp nets, and the survival rate will be many times higher than if fry were released. There is potential for renewed sport and commercial fisheries. The income produced will be used for fisheries enforcement all around the northern Cortez. Many jobs will be created. It's a rare "win-win-win-win" situation for everybody.
But, in order to design a scientific hatchery program, a baseline must first be established, showing the present state of the totoaba population, and that's where the survey cruises come in.
These beautiful trips will be taken during 2003 aboard Tony Reyes' San Felipe panga mothership, the Jose Andres. Tony himself, the world's most knowledgeable (former) commercial totoaba fisherman, will personally lead these trips, together with UABC's biologists. Led by these experts, we'll tag-and-release as many totoaba as possible, and we'll record and preserve the new species we discover. For a "species guy" like me, this is a dream come true, and you can believe I'll be on every one of these cruises.
Of course, as we "fish for science"--like Steinbeck and Ricketts--a few delicious yellowtail, dorado, or cabrilla may "accidentally" be caught, and a limited quantity of fillets will be vacuum packed and frozen so they can be taken home in pristine, "sushi-quality" condition. There will also be kayaks aboard for foolin' around the islands, and we'll have lectures every night explaining the history and natural history of what we're seeing.
These relaxed mothership/panga cruises will cost the same as regular San Felipe panga mothership fishing trips, plus a modest donation toward the purchase of special tackle and laboratory equipment critical to the program.
Tony Reyes of Tony Reyes Fishing Tours, San Felipe, Mexico.