Aquafarming: producing legal totoaba and saving the vaquita

The illegal market has endangered both the vaquita and the totoaba, as the vaquita is stuck in fishing nets used for totoaba

Aquafarming: producing legal totoaba and saving the vaquita
The vaquita has suffered the collateral damage derived from the illegal totoaba market – Photo: File Photo/EL UNIVERSAL
English 10/09/2018 12:59 Mexico City Alejandro Melgoza Actualizada 11:08

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Twice a week, chef Mario Magaña is delivered the most famous Mexican fish in the world, which is in high demand among clients at Romina, his restaurant in Polanco, Mexico City.

He invites us inside his kitchen. The fish is in a platter, odorless; it's fresh. Minutes later, he cooks it into a carpaccio. The meat melts into your mouth and its taste differs from other fish, mostly when paired with white wine.

The product in Magaña's kitchen in the totoaba, a native species from the Upper Gulf of California, a national reserve also inhabited by the vaquita, both turned into endangered species by traffickers. Magaña is one of the few restaurant owners who offer it in its menu legally, as the fish is reproduced through aquafarming.

For the chef the receive it, it travels from La Paz, Baja California Sur, at the Earth Ocean Farms, led by Pablo Konietzko, where they reproduce the fish in a laboratory and then cultivate it in a sustainable way, inside waterproof spheres located at open sea, so totoabas live in their natural habitat. This is the only firm that has the necessary permits to operate in the country.

Once they're ready, in their juvenile stage, they're bought by distributors. They sell them to different restaurants and hotels.

They can all be considered as pioneers of the legal totoaba because they are fighting the illegal market managed by Asian mafias, as documented by EL UNIVERSAL in 2016.

In China and other Asian countries, they eat their swim bladder or crop for their supposed aphrodisiac and healing properties, such as better blood circulation and improvement in joints, as well as increasing longevity. Nevertheless, the damage it generates is severe: in the fishing nets, the vaquita is also captured, a native species from Mexico, which is on the verge of extinction.

According to Konietzko, this effort to care and preserve the species has gathered around 100 clients from restaurants and hotels in Baja California, Baja California Sur, Nuevo León, Jalisco, and Mexico City. They are looking to access the Caribbean area soon.

“There has been a great reception in the main restaurants in the most important cities in the country, because of the product's quality. In the beginning, it was quite complicated, but we created links with the distributors, so they were the ones in charge of creating consciousness and educate the clients”, says Konietzko.

Sea of Cortez

Also known as totuava or totoaba macdonaldi, the totoaba, the biggest fish in the Sciaenidae family, can measure up to 2 meters long, and wights up to 100 kilos. It inhabits the Upper Gulf of California or the Cortez sea, close to the Colorado River. Along with the vaquita, a native species from Mexico. Since the half of the 20th century, the communities of Chinese origin Mexico and the US have ingested the swim bladder, discarding the rest of the meat.

The exploitation reached 2,3000 tonnes in 1940, increased until the totoaba was declared in danger of extinction, in 1975, the regulation prevails up to these days.

In the illegal market, its price reaches USD 8,000 per kilo, but it can increase up to USD $16,000. Nevertheless, in businesses that serve it legally, the prices start at MXN $245.

The idea to cultivate the totoaba was a product of this context, which meant to reproduce it inside sea pens, following the rules set by the Semarnat.

The pioneer confessed that because of all the criminal precedents, many businesses are afraid of negative publicity that exists, although there is a legal way to commercialize it.

Rubén Guzmán, from 9 Palmas, a company located in Los Cabos, Baja California Sur, and Iván del Mazo, from Kun Products, from Mexico City, they still have a hard time convincing businesspersons of the good business opportunities for them.

They both told EL UNIVERSAL that their sale has gradually increased: “We've had a good acceptance, I've seen it in the last two years. There has been more interest”, says Guzmán, who currently distributes the product in 21 luxury hotels and restaurants.

Iván del Mazo, who firmly believe in sustainability, adds that: “It has been very complicated in Mexico City. There are big and important clients, who are afraid to participate in the development of the project because of all the buzz around the vaquita and the illegal totoaba”.

He explains that 70% of the clients he approaches, and like the product, are afraid of being mistakenly accused on social media. Guzmán says that the price changes and varies. “I've seen totoaba priced at MXN $380 and over MXN $1,000, with similar weights. It's seemed as very exotic and fancy. It shouldn't be this way, it should be a commercial fish, common. This fish is 100% Mexican”, says Del Mazo.

Magaña and his employees also emphasize to the clients that what they are about to consume is sustainably cultivated totoaba, which is certified.

Magaña leads one out of 100 restaurants that sell it; nevertheless, a minimum number of businesses allowed this newspaper to publish their names, as they're afraid of being involved in a scandal.

In Baja California Sur it's sold in Club de Playa Fundadores PLC, Fat-Tuna Copas y Cocina, La Marea, Manta Restaurant, and Toro Latin Kitchen & Bar. In regards to hotels, it can be found in Chileno Bay Resort & Residences, Hilton Los Cabos Beach & Golf Resort, JW Marriott Los Cabos Beach Resort & Spa, One & Only Palmilla, The Cape, a Thompson Hotel, The Resort at Pedregal, Villa de Arco Beach Resort & Spa, Tres Virgenes, Oliva Al Mare, and Diamante.

In Mexico City, it's sold at Garum, Los Chapulines, Sylvestre, Romina, Isabella, Belfiore, Mia Domenica, Juban, Centralito, and Rokai.

The product is also available in Monterrey, Cuernavaca, Guadalajara, and Baja California.

Due to ignorance, Guzmán explains that in some cases, diners think they're eating the vaquita. In fact, there have been scandals such as the on April 2017, when a client denounced the sale in a restaurant. Later, inspectors from the Semarnat confirmed the legality of the product.

Educational labor

To fight this problem, the pioneers developed an educational process that begins with Konietzko, who informs and shows the facilities to the distributors. At the same time, Guzmán and Del Mazo are in contact with restaurant owners and hoteliers.

Del Mazo explains that “when a client decides it, we go to the restaurant, we gather the cooks and the waiters. I've had to give classes. I write them an outline to explain why is it legal, what are we doing, and I focus on the part about the environment”.

Finally, restaurant owners like Magaña educate diners. The pioneers agree that each of them, from their position, that it is an excellent food and 100% Mexican, that's why its consumption should be promoted. “I see a great potential in the totoaba”, says Konietzko.