The totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi) is a large, slow-growing fish found exclusively in the Sea of Cortez. Capable of reaching over six feet in length and weighing up to 220 pounds, these fish were once abundant in the region, serving as a staple for local communities and a thriving commercial fishery in the mid-20th century. However, overfishing and habitat degradation have led to a dramatic decline in totoaba populations, pushing them to the brink of extinction.

The totoaba, a large fish native to the Sea of Cortez, is entwined with the vaquita’s fate in a tangled web of illegal fishing, black-market demand, and a race against extinction.

The fates of the totoaba and the critically endangered vaquita are inextricably linked. At the heart of this tragic connection lies a dark trade fueled by insatiable demand for totoaba swim bladders, an ancient remedy prized in Chinese medicine, and the indiscriminate fishing methods haven proven deadly for the elusive vaquita.

Deadly Bycatch

It is the totoaba’s swim bladder, an organ that helps the fish control its buoyancy, that has become the epicenter of a black-market boom. In traditional Chinese medicine, these swim bladders, known as “fish maws,” are believed to have numerous health benefits, including promoting longevity and vitality. This demand has driven up the price of totoaba swim bladders to astonishing levels, earning them the nickname “cocaine of the sea.”

The illegal fishing methods used to catch totoaba, particularly gillnets, have proven disastrous for the vaquita population. Gillnets, designed to catch fish by their gills, are indiscriminate, often trapping and killing vaquitas as bycatch. As a result, the vaquita, already struggling with declining numbers, has become collateral damage in the race to supply the lucrative totoaba trade.

A Dual Extinction

The intertwined fates of the vaquita and the totoaba have given rise to the term “dual extinction,” highlighting the fact that both species are teetering on the edge of oblivion. With the vaquita’s population plummeting to fewer than 20 individuals and the totoaba’s numbers in a critical state, urgent action is needed to prevent both species from disappearing forever.

A Troubled History

The Sea of Cortez was once a flourishing hub for totoaba fishing, providing a valuable source of income for local communities. However, the combination of overfishing, habitat degradation, and the eventual listing of the totoaba as a critically endangered species led to a ban on totoaba fishing in Mexico in the 1970s. Despite these efforts, the illegal totoaba trade has persisted and even intensified, fueled by the insatiable demand from China.