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Fighting Chance

Times Staff Writer

On the eastern side of the Baja California peninsula, beyond the sun-baked shores of San Felipe, lives a fish called the totoaba.

This large member of the croaker family, found only in the northern Sea of Cortez, has a past as colorful as a Mexican sunrise.

It also has a questionable future, having been fished to near-extinction. But because of an effort underway in Ensenada, the first on its behalf, it’s a future that seems to be getting at least a little brighter.

The mere presence of totoaba -- also commonly called totuava -- spawned the beginnings of San Felipe, as a fish camp, in the early 1900s. The fish was the city’s reason for being, the spur to its early growth.

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Beneath its flesh and fins was an unusually large and delicate swim-bladder, which became prized as a key ingredient for fish-belly soup. Consumers in Asia, particularly China, couldn’t get enough. The bladders sold for $5 a pound, which was a lot in those days, when totoaba’s tender meat sold for 2 cents a pound.

The slaughter of totoaba, as they gathered to spawn in the brackish waters at the mouth of the then-mighty Colorado River, was methodical. Fishermen used not only hand-lines and harpoons, but gill-nets and even dynamite. The bladders were removed and the carcasses -- thousands every day -- were left to rot on the beach.

News of such waste, in the early 1920s, reached the border town of Calexico. Two melon haulers, carrying barrels of drinking water, bounced their truck more than 100 miles over a road-less desert and through vast mud plains and found not only San Felipe, but the very bonanza they were looking for.

They became the first real dealers of totoaba flesh, which was comparable, or superior, to the finest fish sold north of the border. A steady stream of refrigeration trucks followed and the San Pedro fish houses distributed totoaba under various labels, from Mexican bass to white seabass and, simply, seabass.

Eventually, adventurous anglers made their way to San Felipe and sank their hooks into a mighty game fish that looked and fought like the white seabass so prevalent back then off Southern California. But they were three times the size, measuring up to seven feet and weighing as much as 300 pounds. A sport fishery began to develop alongside the commercial fishery.

Things were going swimmingly in San Felipe. Commercial catches in 1962 reached a whopping 2,000 tons. More anglers were coming every year.

But things were not going nearly as well for the totoaba, which were not being managed to any degree as a sustainable resource. The collapse -- brought about also by the damming of the Colorado and the subsequent reduction, to a trickle, of water entering the sea -- hit like a thud.

Commercial catches plummeted annually after 1962 and reached a meager 50 tons in 1974. A year later, Mexico put totoaba on its list of federally endangered species, banning its catch and sale. More recently, Mexico declared the upper reaches of the gulf a biosphere reserve.

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Today, with tourism having replaced fishing as the primary economic base, there is only anecdotal evidence of a modest comeback: The totoaba is still referred to mostly in the past tense.

Which brings us back to the western side of the peninsula. Here, on the wind-swept shores of Ensenada, a small staff of university scientists and students has dived headfirst into a project aimed at restoring the species and bringing it back into the limelight.

Conal David True, a marine biologist at the University of Baja California, is in charge of the project, which is moving forward despite funding that seems to ebb more than it flows. He and his staff, for the last eight years, have been raising totoaba, trucking them across the peninsula, and releasing them off San Felipe.

Their ultimate goal -- an ambitious and, some might say, unrealistic one -- is to have the captive-breeding program blossom into a full-scale aquaculture operation that can be moved to San Felipe. There, with the help of the beleaguered fishermen, totoaba will be farmed-raised, with perhaps 30% going toward enhancement of the wild fishery and the rest sent to various markets.

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“In the northern Sea of Cortez, there’s just so much for the people to do,” True said. “There’s some fishing, a few maquiladoras [foreign-owned assembly plants], some drug trafficking and, I think, a mine. And of course tourism. That’s about all they have to do for a living, so if they can get totoaba back, it’ll be a big plus for everybody.”

A big plus? Totoaba bladders today fetch about $100 a pound.

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This is a busier day than most at the hatchery. Children on field trips are being led from tank to tank, shown the algae that feed the microscopic rotifers, which feed the smaller totoaba until they’re large enough to eat brine shrimp and, ultimately, specially formulated food pellets.

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The smaller totoaba were produced by the sleek and silver giants housed in two large tanks outside the complex, not far from the lapping surf. These broodstock -- captured years ago on hook and line by the scientists -- have produced thousands of totoaba, long since released.

The twice-yearly releases have gotten progressively bigger -- the first was only 400 fish and the most recent was 1,700 -- and the goal is to someday put 20,000 fish each year back into the natural fold. It’s a drop in the bucket, really, since a high percentage of those fish will be gobbled up by predators or caught in the nets of poachers long before they reach adulthood.

But it’s a start.

“I think what they’re doing here is beautiful,” says Paul Curtis, hatchery manager at Hubbs-Sea World white seabass hatchery in Carlsbad. “Doing this with white seabass is one thing. They’re somewhat endangered, or at least they were. But we have tons of broodstock available to us. Poor Conal, trying to get broodstock for him is like pulling teeth from a killer whale.”

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Curtis has come to Ensenada to assist True and his staff as they implant devices beneath the skin of the broodstock that will release hormones designed to boost the ovulation process. With luck, True will soon have millions of eggs to nurture in hopes of growing about 8,000 fish to releasable size.

Such a process, as any hatchery manager will attest, requires all sorts of trickery to be effective.

The children here are taught, for example, that the broodstock in one tank has spent the last several weeks in a simulated summer, with 14 hours of sunlight every day and warm water; while those in the other tank have been living in a simulated winter, with only eight hours of sunlight and much colder water. Thus, it is hoped, there will be two spawns each year, one each in the fall and spring.

They are taught that totoaba are found throughout the northern gulf but rarely south of the Midriff Islands, or about 400 miles south of San Felipe. At the Midriff, an abrupt change in water temperature serves as a barrier. Such confinement has made the fish extremely vulnerable.

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This proved true not long after they were discovered as a viable fishery off Guaymas on the mainland coast. According to a 1928 California Department of Fish and Game report on the totoaba fishery, some of the Chinese within the community “discovered that the sound or swim-bladder of the fish was of unusual character and not dissimilar to that of fishes in the Orient which, when properly pressed and dried, sold for astonishing prices.”

When the waters off Guaymas were fished out, the search expanded northward and the discovery was made, by German explorers looking for gold, of perhaps millions of spawning totoaba at the mouth of the Colorado. In a rush, the Guaymas fishermen migrated north.

“The first season men only went,” the DFG report continued. “But on the second, wives and children were brought, and in this way the town sprang up, growing from an original five white men to many hundreds of Indians and Mexicans.”

The rest, it can safely be said, is history.

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