Totoaba and San Felipe

SAN FELIPE-Many of Southern California’s boaters navigate south of the border into Mexico’s Baja California, where they make port at places such as Ensenada, Bahia Tortuga, Los Cabos, La Paz and Loreto. One Baja California city barely receiving attention in The Log is San Felipe. The city on the northeastern side of Baja California isn’t completely absent from our coverage, however. San Felipe was under The Log’s spotlight as part of our vaquita coverage.

The vaquita, as you might or might not know by now, is on the verge of extinction. Vaquitas are (and were) commonly found in the upper Gulf of California, near San Felipe. The vaquita habitat is under threat of extinction because of the area’s totoaba fishery. Local fishers often engage in illegal fishing practices to catch totoaba – which often yield big money from foreign markets. The vaquita, coincidentally, fell prey to the aforementioned illegal fishing practices, dying off as bycatch.

Totoaba was first recorded as a catch in 1923, according to an in-depth history of San Felipe posted on MexFish.com. Catches of the prized fish would thrive during the next few years. The 1924-25 season recorded 171,000 pounds of totoaba catches; the catch totals increased to: 664,000 pounds for 1925-26; 1,039,000 pounds for 1926-27; and, 1,838,000 pounds for the 1927-28 season (through April 25, 1928).

Fishing brokers would introduce totoaba to restaurants in San Diego and Los Angeles, allowing the local fishery for the fish species to sustain itself, economically.

“The totuava became a prized delicacy, with initial demands exceeding the supply. Originally, all the totuava was hauled to California markets, but the mid 1930’s found increasing amounts sent to Phoenix, Kansas City, St. Louis, and other inland cities,” an entry in the “History of San Felipe: Permanent Settlement” stated.

“Totuava was the basis for other small mainland fishing camps on the gulf,” the entry continued. “These villages also sent their fish to the United States across the border at Calexico. Generally speaking, San Felipe accounted for 85-90 percent of the total totuava catch passing the border, and today San Felipe still enjoys this same percentage.”

San Felipe would grow into a major fishing village in the 1940s and 1950s, with shrimp now a major export from the small city on the northeast Baja California coast. The city is home to an annual shrimp festival. This year’s festival will be held during the first week of November.

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