The totoaba or totuava (Totoaba macdonaldi) is a marine fish of the drum family (Sciaenidae) that is indigenous to the northern half of the Gulf of California in Mexico. Formerly abundant and subject to an intensive fishery, the totoaba has become rare, and is listed on CITES, the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
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. 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.
The diversion of water from the Colorado River within the United States leaves little or no fresh water to reach the delta, greatly altering the environment in the delta, and the salinity of the upper Sea of Cortez. The flow of fresh water to the mouth of the Colorado since the completion of the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams has been only about 4% of the average flow during the period from 1910 to 1920. This is considered to be a major cause of the depletion of the totoaba population. With the loss of the fresh water flow from the river, salinity in the delta is usually 35 ppt or higher.
Another threat to the totoaba is from human poaching: the fish bladder is a valuable commodity as it is considered a delicacy in Chinese cuisine; the meat is also sought after for making soups. It can fetch high prices – 200 bladders may be sold for $3.6 million at 2013 prices – as it is believed by many Chinese to be a treatment for fertility, circulatory and skin problems.
Commercial fishing for totoaba began in the 1920s. The catch reached 2,000 metric tons in 1943, but had fallen to only 50 tons in 1975, when Mexico protected the totoaba and banned the fishery. Anectodal evidence suggests that totoaba were very abundant prior to the start of the commercial fishery, but there is no hard evidence of natural population size. Recent studies indicate that the totoaba population has stabilized at a low level, perhaps a bit bigger than when the commercial fishery was banned in 1975. Totoaba are still caught, as by-catch in fishing for other finned fish and for shrimp, and in illegal fishing for totoaba directly. Some totoaba are illegally exported to the United States, often misidentified as white seabass. The government of Baja California has authorized commercial raising of totoaba in fish farms.
- Fish Base - Totoaba - Retrieved July 11, 2007
- IUCN Red List of Threatened Species - Totoaba macdonaldii - Retrieved July 11, 2007
- NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources - Totoaba - Retrieved July 11, 2007
- Review of CITES Appendixes Based on Resolution Conf. 9.24 (Rev.) Totoaba macdonaldi (Mexican seabass) - Retrieved July 11, 2007
- Sonoran Desert Coastal Conservation - Totoaba - Retrieved July 11, 2007
- Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch - Totoaba - Retrieved July 11, 2007
- Earstones Tell Fishes' Tale in Colorado River Estuary - Retrieved June 10, 2008
- Stickney, R. (25 April 2013) "Multi-Million Dollar Fish Bladder Factory Uncovered in Calexico". NBC San Diego.
- Penuelas Alarid, Bernardo (31 October 2010). "Comercializarán totoaba criada en cautiverio". El Mexicano. Retrieved 4 September 2011.(Spanish)
- Santos Malagón, Sac-Nicté (6 September 2010). "Buscan hacer de la totoaba un producto distintivo". La Voz de la Frontera. Retrieved 4 September 2011.(Spanish)