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The Noble Totuava — Fish Story with a Sad Beginning and (Maybe) a Happy Ending

By Tom Gatch

Tony Reyes, "Papa" Gorgonio and his son, Chichi, after unloading a catch of totuava in 1953.

Nearly a half century ago, San Felipe was little more than a tiny, remote poblado at the northern end of the Sea of Cortez. Few people north of the border even knew that it existed, let alone entertained the thought of ever going there. The rare exceptions were dedicated anglers in pursuit of the mightiest croaker of them all, the giant Totuava.

The Colorado River delta is the primary spawning ground for this indigenous species, and also serves as a nursery for very young fish. Juveniles begin migrating south after about two years, but then must survive for another six or seven years before reaching full sexual maturity. They have been known to live for 25 years, but because of overfishing and inadvertent bycatch, fewer and fewer of the now relatively rare fish even live long enough to reproduce.

Totuava can easily attain weights of well over 200 pounds. They are considered gourmet table fare and, along with shrimp, were the backbone of San Felipe’s economy at the time. Ironically this factor eventually became the totuava’s undoing. During the middle of the previous century, large quantities of their ice covered fillets were trucked up to satisfy the growing demand north of the border for what was then referred to as ‘Mexican sea bass’.

Giant totuava provided great sport for countless visiting anglers during the mid 20 th century.

Unfortunately, it was later discovered that even more money could be made by catering to the desires of epicures in Asian countries who prized the totuava’s swim bladder as a prime ingredient in gourmet soup stock. The skyrocketing value of such an easily harvested and cheaply processed product created a situation where beaches around San Felipe often became strewn with huge, rapidly decaying totuava carcasses which had nothing more than their swim bladders cut out.

This tragic waste, along with excessive shrimp trawling in the region and the incremental damming of the Colorado River up in the United States, reduced the flow of fresh water in the Rio Hardy to a virtual trickle. Such a profound environmental change spelled certain doom for the noble totuava.

During the late 1970’s, when it seemed as if the last nail had finally been driven into the coffin, the Mexican government intervened and instituted a strict ‘no take’ embargo on sport and commercial catches of the now endangered totuava.

The good news is that, with current aggressive husbandry programs and organized habitat enhancement efforts, the totuava is starting to make a comeback.  In May 2002, a cooperative program with UABC (Universidad Autonoma de Baja California) and conservation groups allowed the release of 1,600 totuava’s into the Sea of Cortez.  Their stocks, however, will probably never return to the number and size that were common during San Felipe’s ‘glory days’.

The cooperative efforts of both government agencies and civilian environmental groups are now helping to reintroduce totuava to the waters of the upper Sea of Cortez.

Today, this region still offers solid fishing opportunities for various species including orangemouth corvina, shortfin corvina and spotted bay bass and smaller grouper. Shore fishing from can also be productive during periods of good tidal movement. If you don’t have your own boat, a commercial panga can be booked right on the beach, and deepwater charters targeting larger fish at Consag Rock just offshore are also available.

Further south along the coast toward Puertecitos, the long stretches of sandy beach are a kayak angler’s dream, and catches of large corvina are not uncommon during the months of summer.

Although the big totuava may be gone, the wise angler will never visit San Felipe without a fishing pole.  Want to cast a line in San Felipe?  Ask us how!

Hooked on Baja author & columnist, Tom Gatch, is one of Baja’s foremost writers with a focus upon outdoor and recreational topics in Baja and southern California.

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About Tom Gatch

For over a decade, Hooked on Baja author, Tom Gatch, has built a solid reputation as one of the foremost writers and columnists focusing on travel and recreational activities in Baja and southern California. His company, El Puerto Creative Consultants provides professional copy writing services and creative support for business entities on both sides of the border.

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