The high-stakes quest to save a croaking monster

Will Mexico legalize totoaba fishing?

“Totoaba is the main reason this town exists,” says Lorenzo García Carrillo, the leader of San Felipe’s largest fishing federation, as fishermen walk in and out of his crowded office one morning, socializing and talking business. Fishing in Totoaba attracted many settlers in the 1920s with the promise of easy, legal fishing and a good income, and many of today’s fishermen are their descendants. The city has a large totoaba statue.

Mario García, a third-generation fisherman, invites me one evening to sit with him at his kitchen table. He pulls out a decades-old calendar and opens a page with a sepia-toned photo of someone pumping gas into a car. He points to the caption, which notes that Alfredo García, his grandfather, had opened the city’s first gas station. He was so successful in catching totoaba, shrimp and turtles that he was able to open the business, says García. It’s different today, he adds, because the competition for depleted inventory is so intense.

García has two pangas and goes out every day, weather permitting, sometimes leaving before dawn and unloading his fish late at night. He says his catches vary widely and depend in part on the migration patterns of his targets, mainly shrimp, corvina and sierra. The only respite comes in the summer when it’s too hot to fish. Either way, he says, there are too few to have at this time of year. Fishermen call this time slow piojo (“pou”), when they scratch their heads wondering where the money will come from.

Roberto Aviña Carlín, the official who heads Mexico’s wildlife agency, said one way to help struggling fishermen would be to legalize a regulated totoaba angling industry. Mexico may be “five years” away from that, he says. “People have to change away from their nets.”

Legalizing trade in any endangered species has long been controversial. Opponents cite elephant ivory as an example of how the legal trade in wildlife products has likely increased – not reduced – demand, leading to more animal killings.

Vanda Felbab-Brown, a crime expert at the Brookings Institution, says such a move would be complicated. “Good and persistent law enforcement” would be essential, and Mexico would still have to deal with the problem of the use of gillnets for a variety of fish and the impact on the vaquita. “Legalization alone will not be enough to stem the illegal trade,” she says.

“I don’t think the totoaba will be safe until poaching for its bladder stops, and that’s the problem,” says Miguel Cisneros-Mata, who co-wrote the 2020 report. IUCN on totoaba and studies fish demography at the National Institute of Fisheries and Aquaculture Mexico. “How can we do this? I don’t know,” he says.

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