Deciding on the future of Totoaba farms in Mexico

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The fate of Mexico’s burgeoning Totoaba aquaculture industry hangs in the balance, as farmers await a CITES decision on the possibility of exporting this once endangered species.

A diver inspects nets at a site operated by Earth Ocean Farms

© Earth Ocean Farms

As discussed in a previous article, Totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi) – a species unique to the Gulf of California – has enormous potential in aquaculture. The biological characteristics of totoaba are extremely well suited to breeding, especially with regard to its growth rate, feed conversion rate (FCR) and adaptability to overcrowding due to its natural schooling behavior. These once rare fish are now cultivated 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 breed this species off the Baja California Peninsula have helped launch a young but sophisticated industry, which is poised to thrive. However, the current export ban means the sector is currently limited to domestic sales – effectively stifling growth plans by 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), due to take place in early 2022. Many farmers are fervently hoping that The export ban will be lifted – otherwise, the future of the industry will be at stake.

Earth Ocean Farms is the largest producer of totoaba in the world
Earth Ocean Farms is the largest producer of totoaba in the world

© Earth Ocean Farms

Background

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 authorizing international trade in the species is vital to establishing a thriving Totoaba industry.

Since 1977, the 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 commercial ban, large swim bladders – also known as log or fishtail – the Totoaba, continued to be traded illegally, with ineffective governance and the illegal status of the product fueling high prices on the black market.

There is no doubt that the Mexican authorities have done wrong in enforcing the fishing ban and, tragically, the illegal gillnets used by poachers have resulted in the deaths of many endangered vaquita porpoises. The vaquita is the most endangered marine mammal in the world. For decades now, NGOs and other parties have advocated 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 response

Yet, in the meantime, academic and commercial aquaculture activities have thwarted the threat of extinction of the Totoaba in the wild, through constructive stock improvement programs. Totoaba 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 an endangered species should be assessed, as indirect 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 Totoaba – a decision that could be decisive for its future. In some cases, CITES may grant an exemption for captive breeds, which would legalize trade in the products of a breeding establishment registered under Appendix II. On this basis, EOF and other commercial farms in Totoaba could apply for export permits from the trade authorities of the countries to which they aspire to sell. Just like sturgeon farms can legally sell their caviar.

Some environmental NGOs, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), oppose the move, saying that a legalized export channel for farmed Totoaba would provide a facilitated export channel for illegal products. log, inevitably prompting poaching in the upper gulf. However, there are several points to demystify this presumption.

Earth Ocean Farms operates submersible cages
Earth Ocean Farms operates submersible cages

© Earth Ocean Farms

“The great misunderstanding is to treat log
and Totoaba (meat) as the same, ”explains Pablo Konietzko, CEO of EOF. In other words, there are two products that are easily distinguished 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 log. It could happen later 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 market, is the size, since the black market is after the big ones. These would require much longer growing periods than the current 18-24 months for meat, which EOF said would be economically feasible.

“Currently everything is based on black market prices which are absurd,” adds Konietzko, certain that the legal offer should lower the price of the illegal. log also, which in turn should reduce Totoaba’s incentive for poaching in the upper gulf.

In addition, today’s full traceability possibilities could accurately determine the origin of each product. Not only through the advanced genetic markers that all hatcheries work with, but also through the analysis of the fatty acid composition, which is linked to the distinct diet of the farm-raised 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, while regulations surrounding its trade have not been fortunate enough to catch up with the goal of breeding this fish, but rather to tackle the trade in illegally caught fish. This compromises the possibility of using the full potential of this natural resource in a sustainable manner, as some research suggests, “for endangered species, mariculture can offer both ecological and economic pathways to a solution” ( Clavelle et al, 2019).

Unlike conservation farming of terrestrial species, the effectiveness of which has been the subject of much debate, conservation-related aquaculture holds promise, as high volumes of threatened aquatic species can be produced at relatively low cost. weak. Search by Gentry et al (2019) and others suggest that flooding the market with legal livestock products would lower the price enough to reduce the incentive to poach endangered species. In the case of Totoaba, with two separate products, this might not apply directly, when raising fish for both meat and log can only be an alternative future scenario.

Local children are involved in releasing hatchery-raised fish
Local children are involved in releasing hatchery-raised fish

© Earth Ocean Farms

However, a more immediate effect of conservation aquaculture for Totoaba would be stock enhancement programs such as those managed by EOF, CREMES and UABS. These programs operate by producing juveniles in accordance with guidelines for responsible fishery improvement.

“We are not funded by any government, but we have all the backing and backing for this activity, just as other research institutes have resupplied themselves in recent years,” Konietzko comments of EOF’s annual resupply activities. in the upper gulf region.

“So, we do education classes for the children of these communities and when the day comes, they are the ones who repopulate themselves, so it’s very moving… and it’s very satisfying to see that we don’t. let’s not only release fish, but we are also planting a seed in the new generations to come ”.

In this way, aquaculture operations are an essential part of the preservation of Totoaba and will need to be accompanied by effective enforcement of regulations, as well as habitat protection and restoration.

The last decades of powerless management of the fishery have clearly demonstrated that current efforts alone cannot solve the problematic situation of Totoaba. It is evident that with a growing human population, the demand for endangered species like Totoaba is only increasing. By responsibly using advanced captive breeding technologies, conservation-linked Totoaba 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.

Karlotta Rieve

With a keen interest in the future of the food supply, Karlotta is currently diving into the aquaculture industry, keen to better understand the potential and challenges of farmed seafood. As a freelance, she typically works to map innovation trends for businesses and connect them to startups in the food and retail world.


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