The fate of Mexico’s nascent Totoaba aquaculture industry hangs in the balance, as farmers await a CITES ruling on whether to export the once endangered species.
As discussed in a previous article, Totoaba (Totoaba macdonalddi) – a species unique to the Gulf of California – has enormous potential in aquaculture. The biological characteristics of the totoaba are extremely well suited for rearing, especially with respect to its growth rate, feed conversion rate (FCR), and adaptability to overcrowding due to its natural shoaling behavior. These once-rare fish are now being farmed by several companies in Mexico, both as a way to restore depleted wild stocks and as a way to forge a new aquaculture industry.
A number of innovative public and private efforts to farm this species off the Baja California Peninsula have helped advance a young but sophisticated industry that is ripe for growth. However, the current export ban means that the sector is currently restricted to domestic sales, effectively stifling the growth plans of major players. As a result, the Mexican industry is eagerly awaiting a review of the species’ status by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which is due to take place in early 2022. Many farmers are fervently hopeful that The export ban will be lifted – otherwise the future of the sector will hang in the balance.
The total annual aquaculture production of 500 tonnes is currently limited to domestic sale, although this fish would be an attractive product for the export market. The limited quantity of high-quality white meat enjoys a favorable positioning in the high-end market in the most important cities of Mexico. Earth Ocean Farms (EOF), which currently produces the majority of the tonnage, wants the product to retain this status in the domestic market and therefore has no incentive to increase production at this time. However, as pioneers of commercial Totoaba breeding, they argue that allowing international trade in the species is vital to establishing a thriving Totoaba industry.
Since 1977, Totoaba has been internationally recognized as an endangered species listed in Appendix I of CITES. The listing was made in response to the collapse of stocks, caused by overfishing and habitat degradation. However, despite the trade ban, large swim bladders – also called log or fishmouth – of the Totoaba, continued to be illegally traded, with ineffective governance and the illegal status of the product fueling high prices on the black market.
Unquestionably, Mexican authorities have done a poor job of enforcing the fishing ban and, tragically, illegal gillnets used by poachers have resulted in the death of many endangered vaquita porpoises. The vaquita is the most endangered marine mammal in the world. For decades, NGOs and other parties have been advocating for better law enforcement to prevent poaching, but the Upper Gulf of California has become a battleground with no clear solutions in sight.
An academic counterattack
Yet in the meantime, academic and commercial aquaculture activities have countered the threat of extinction of the Totoaba in the wild, through constructive stock enhancement programs. Totoaba’s hatchery technology is well developed and there are currently three geographically diverse hatcheries (UABC in Ensenada, CREMES in Bahia Kino and EOF in La Paz) producing juveniles for restocking and commercial aquaculture activities. Meanwhile, researchers have suggested that Totoaba’s status as a threatened species should be assessed, as circumstantial evidence has shown positive signs of their recovery in the wild (Quiñonez et al. 2015).
In 2022, the CITES Standing Committee will meet to discuss and reconsider the status of the Totoaba – a decision that could be decisive for its future. In some cases, CITES may grant an exemption for breeds in captivity, which would legalize trade in the products of a breeding operation registered under Appendix II. Based on this, EOF and other Totoaba commercial farms could apply for export permits from the trade authorities of the countries they aspire to sell to. Just as sturgeon farms can legally sell their caviar.
Some environmental NGOs, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), oppose the move, saying a legalized export channel for farmed Totoaba would present an easier export channel for illegal species. log, inevitably giving incentives for poaching in the Upper Gulf. However, there are several points to debunk this presumption.
“The great misunderstanding is to treat log
and Totoaba (meat) as the same thing,” explains Pablo Konietzko, CEO of EOF. In other words, they are two easily distinguishable products with distinct market destinations and therefore not the same export channel.
According to Konietzko, “Our primary goal (EOF) is to produce a healthy source of protein for the growing population. We do not focus on the market for log. It could come later down the road and if there is a market and a price for it and it makes economic sense to also sell the small log, of course we will.
In any case, the way to differentiate a breeding log of an illegal is the size, since the black market is after the big ones. These would require much longer grow-out periods than the current 18-24 months for meat, which EOF says would be economically feasible.
“Currently, everything is based on black market prices which are absurd,” adds Konietzko, certain that the legal offer should bring down the price of the illegal. log as well, which in turn should reduce the incentive for Totoaba poaching in the upper Gulf.
Additionally, today’s full traceability capabilities could accurately determine the origin of each product. Not only through the advanced genetic markers that all hatcheries work with, but by analyzing the fatty acid composition, which is tied to the distinct diet of farmed Totoaba. Testing tools for both methods are not new, but they need to be more widely available to competent authorities.
Totoaba has become an emerging aquaculture species, as regulations around its trade have had no chance of catching up with the purpose of farming this fish, but rather tackling the trade of illegally caught fish. This undermines the possibility of using the full potential of this natural resource in a sustainable manner, as some research suggests, “for species threatened with extinction, mariculture may offer both ecological and economic pathways to a solution” ( Clavelle et al2019).
Unlike conservation farming of terrestrial species, the effectiveness of which has been much debated, conservation-related aquaculture holds promise because large volumes of endangered aquatic species can be produced at relatively low cost. Search by Gentry et al (2019) and others suggest that flooding the market with legal farmed products would lower the price enough to reduce the incentive for poaching endangered species. In the case of Totoaba, with two distinct products, this might not apply directly, where the farming of fish for meat and log may just be an alternate future scenario.
However, a more immediate effect of conservation aquaculture for Totoaba would be stock enhancement programs such as those run by EOF, CREMES and UABS. These programs work by producing juveniles according to the guidelines for the improvement of responsible fishing.
“We do not receive funding from any government, but we have all the support and support for this activity, just as other research institutes have replenished in recent years,” Konietzko comments on the annual repopulation activities of the ‘EOF in the upper gulf region.
“So we organize education classes for the children of these communities and when the day comes, they are the ones who do the repopulation themselves, so it’s very emotional… and it’s very satisfying to see that we we are not only releasing fish, but we are also planting a seed in new generations to come.”
In this way, aquaculture operations are an essential part of Totoaba preservation and will need to be accompanied by effective enforcement of regulations, as well as habitat protection and restoration.
The past decades of ruthless fisheries management have clearly demonstrated that current efforts alone cannot solve the problematic situation of the Totoaba. It is obvious that with a growing human population, the demand for endangered species like Totoaba is only increasing. By responsibly using advanced captive breeding technologies, Totoaba conservation aquaculture can not only help ensure the preservation of this species in the wild, but also has the potential to bring back a sustainable resource. and generate prosperity in an economically depressed region of Mexico.