Paying witness to species caught as collateral damage in the Gulf of California shrimp trawling fishery, where more than 80 percent of catch is not shrimp.

March 11, 2017

Issue 23: March/April 2017Poetry

The totoaba is a large marine fish species endemic to the Gulf of California. Once abundant, massive schools of totoaba swam in annual circular migrations around the Gulf, stopping to spawn in the Colorado River Delta where the juveniles took refuge for several years before migrating themselves. The Comcaac, an indigenous group in Sonora, have an extensive knowledge of this species and tell the story of black brant geese (Branta bernicla nigricans) transforming into totoaba as they land on and enter the water in the Delta.

Across the globe in the early 1900s, populations of a similar fish called the Chinese bahaba were brought to near extinction as the demand for their swim bladder, used medicinally in Asia, was high. This contributed to the establishment of the commercial totoaba market in the Gulf of California. The fish were captured in huge quantities in the 1920s and many fishing camps sprung up specifically for the harvest. Their less-valuable meat was often abandoned and only the swim bladders, or buches, were taken to market and sold to fish buyers in Arizona for large sums of money. This practice, combined with the threats of an altered habitat in the Delta and frequent accidental catch (bycatch) of totoaba juveniles by shrimp trawlers, quickly decimated their population.

Brants transforming into totoaba by Maria Johnson.

Fishing totoaba became illegal in 1975 and they were later listed as critically endangered under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Today, they are still targeted illegally and sold in the black market for up to $10,000 each; the demand has not only continued the decline of this species, but has also driven the vaquita, a small, endemic porpoise, to critical endangerment through accidental capture in gillnets meant for totoaba.

Depletion of this species, among countless others—including the finescale triggerfish and cownose ray also featured here—through overfishing, bycatch, and altering of the Colorado River Delta, has continued to have an impact on the entire ecosystem, human communities, and food corridor in the Sonoran Desert Region.

Totoaba macdonaldi by Maria Johnson.


Totoaba macdonaldi

By Eric Magrane

when the black brants
fly north to the delta

they turn into totoaba
drumming, drumming

sonic muscle fibers
around swim bladder

buoyancy in the column
drumming water

migration cycling the gulf
dreams of schools

a century later, insatiable drumming
insatiable your name

insatiable the humans who say
“the swim bladder or buche

is scraped and washed until
it is snowy white”

already ghost-like, the edge
of three generations

what was twenty fish is now one
and you are caught in trawl nets

and you are caught, like the vaquita,
in gillnets

and you are caught
in utterly transformed

waters, and they continue, “after drying
it becomes a clear, translucent,

light amber color
and about as tough

as a steel armored plate,”
is extinction

like drumming, is it transforming
buoyancy, turning back

into birds and flying
into a hard shell of translucent nothing?


Balistes polylepis by Maria Johnson.


Balistes polylepis

By Eric Magrane

not your swimming
like a wave itself,

your ripples mirroring
the sea form, the way

your second dorsal spine unlocks
the throat of the future

or rather releases
your first trigger

but onshore the man with his knife
jabbing, at first I thought

out of mercy, but then
no, and you probably

dreaming, anxious
gliding, while the people

gathered around turn into
clouds billowing above

and the hard bench of the boat
is soft sea floor

The finescale triggerfish is found from northern California to the Gulf of California, and southward to Chile. It is called cochi in Spanish, referring to its round, pig-like shape. As protection against predators, its second dorsal spine—when erect—locks in place its first dorsal spine, which then cannot be released until “triggered.” In the colder months triggerfish move very slowly, and it has been reported that divers can pick them right up. The nets of shrimp trawlers, of course, also have no problem picking them right up along with all of the other bycatch they haul up. When caught locally closer to shore, they are often used in ceviche.

Rhinoptera steindachneri by Maria Johnson.

Cownose Ray

Rhinoptera steindachneri

By Eric Magrane

sleek glide nose wing to strike
elegant waves

large schools or loose aggregations
beaten metal gills

your cousins in the touch tanks
& youtube videos

yet what do we know
elasmobranch, elasmobranch

you move like water itself

The cownose ray is found from the Baja Peninsula and the Gulf of California southward to Peru. Like sharks, they are elasmobranchs, a classification meaning they have skeletons of cartilage rather than bone, and large livers that control their buoyancy. This species is always moving: they often form aggregations of hundreds of individuals that “fly” through the water, and migrate northward or southward depending on the season. They are a particularly sensitive group of animals, as females reach maturity late in life and give birth to only one pup per year. Even so, they are one of the most heavily targeted elasmobranchs in the small-scale fishery and are frequently captured as bycatch in the Gulf of California. It is becoming a rare sight to see them in the wild, and increasingly more likely to encounter them in zoos and museums.

Bycatch Collector’s Edition Trading Cards pay witness to 11 of the species caught as bycatch in the Gulf of California shrimp trawling fishery. Riffing off of the form of baseball cards, the format both honors the living species and memorializes individuals caught up in the nets. The production of a Collector’s Edition bestows value on these species that are surplus casualties in the fishery. Johnson and Magrane created the illustrations and poems in Bycatch as part of the N-Gen Sonoran Desert Researchers 6&6 Art-Science Initiative. ✜

Eric Magrane is the coeditor, with Christopher Cokinos, of The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide (University of Arizona Press, 2016). He is completing a Ph.D. in geography at the University of Arizona, where he is a research associate with the Institute of the Environment.

Maria Johnson is an illustrator and marine conservationist. For several years she has studied shrimp trawler bycatch in the Gulf of California with Prescott College’s Kino Bay Center for Cultural and Ecological Studies.

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