Unsupported Browser Detected

Internet Explorer lacks support for the features of this website. For the best experience, please use a modern browser such as Chrome, Firefox, or Edge.

Voyage of the Totoaba: A 30-Year Journey, A Lasting Scientific Legacy

June 17, 2024

A totoaba recovered from the illegal wildlife trade in 1992 lives on through its contributions to research, education, and endangered species conservation.

An infographic titled "Totoaba" with a large brown fish in the middle and a timeline at the bottom of the page. A timeline of one totoaba specimen’s journey from the illegal wildlife trade to its final resting place as part of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Fish Collection. Credit: Sandra Graubard/NOAA Fisheries

In March 1992, officials seized an illegally harvested fish specimen roughly 6 feet long at the U.S.–Mexico border. The fish was a totoaba, an endangered species targeted by wildlife traffickers for its valuable swim bladder, or “maw.” Almost 30 years later, that totoaba arrived at its final resting place—the National Systematics Laboratory, located inside the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. But what brought it there? And what transpired during the three decades between its initial seizure and its arrival in D.C.? Biologists, special agents, and other experts who have been a part of this totoaba’s journey share its story and the ways that it lives on today through its contributions to science and conservation.

The Trouble with Totoaba

The totoaba, also known as totuava, is an endangered species of marine fish only found in the Gulf of California in Mexico. Significant illegal harvest of totoaba is ongoing. Poachers use gillnets to capture these fish and harvest their swim bladders. This internal organ helps fish regulate their buoyancy and can be worth thousands of dollars each on the black market. The trade of totoaba is illegal under the national laws of Mexico, the United States, and the People’s Republic of China. The species is also protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora. However, swim bladders are frequently exported illegally to the People’s Republic of China or East Asia, where they are used in traditional medicine.

A person in a gray hoodie wearing a pink surgical mask holds up a large fish skeleton with some skin and scales still attached.
Osteological Specimen Preparator Inger Toraason of the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History helped to dissect and prepare this totoaba specimen in January 2022. Its skeleton is now a permanent part of the Smithsonian’s National Fish Collection. Credit: Dr. Katherine Bemis

In 1989, Special Agent Marc Cline from NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement was assigned to the San Diego field office. He soon met Santiago Gomez Aguilar, a representative of a Mexican agency now called the Secretariat of the Environment, Natural Resources and Fisheries, who was working in the United States. Gomez Aguilar informed Cline of the steep declines they were seeing in vaquita, the world’s smallest and most endangered cetacean. Like the totoaba, the vaquita only lives in the Gulf of California off the coast of Mexico. Because totoaba and vaquita have overlapping ranges and are similar in size, vaquita frequently drown in gillnets intended for totoaba. As of 2023, scientists estimate that fewer than 10 vaquita remain in the wild, largely due to illegal totoaba fishing.

Cline, Gomez Aguilar, Mexican representatives, and U.S. officials helped to create an operational plan to strengthen efforts to seize totoaba at the border. This provided U.S. officials with an avenue for obtaining a highly sought-after item: a totoaba voucher specimen. A voucher is a permanent, preserved record of an organism that acts as a species standard for genetic and morphological comparison. 

Ann Colbert, a Marine Forensic Investigator with NOAA, had been trying for years to acquire a totoaba voucher for federal agencies like NOAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It could be used to positively identify suspect filets, organs, or other unrecognizable fish products seized by border officials, helping to prevent totoaba smuggling. This collaborative plan was just the breakthrough that Colbert had been waiting for to finally procure a voucher.

Fish Out of Water

On March 20, 1992, officials recovered a large totoaba at the U.S.–Mexico port of entry in Calexico, California. Despite missing its swim bladder—likely removed and sold on the black market—the totoaba was in good condition. This fish, officials decided, would be sent to forensic scientists in the United States for use as a voucher.

By July, the totoaba was on a plane to Charleston, South Carolina, where Colbert would collect it and deliver it to its new home: NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Forensic Laboratory. The lab is responsible for analyzing evidence from civil and criminal investigations involving violations of laws such as the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act

Here, the totoaba would contribute to these crime-fighting efforts with its tissue. When the totoaba arrived at the lab in the 1990s, forensic scientists were using a technique called isoelectric focusing to help verify the species of unknown organisms. Isoelectric focusing used proteins from tissue samples to create protein patterns resembling barcodes. With a verified totoaba specimen, scientists could compare the totoaba’s protein pattern to that of unidentified tissue samples sent to the lab, helping determine whether the sample was actually totoaba.

An air waybill covered in writing with DOMESTIC EXPRESS printed in large capital letters across it.
The air waybill for the totoaba’s flight from San Diego International Airport to Charleston International Airport. You can see on the waybill that the totoaba departed from San Diego International Airport on July 27, 1992 via Delta Air Lines. Image courtesy of NOAA Fisheries.

As forensic technology improved over the years, the Marine Forensic Lab gradually moved away from using isoelectric focusing in favor of DNA analysis. This new method proved more efficient than isoelectric focusing—which required a small tissue sample for every new analysis. Now, an organism’s DNA had to be sequenced only once to be referenced.

During its time at the lab, the totoaba’s DNA enabled scientists to positively identify suspect samples, says Michelle Zetwo, former Special Agent of NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement. In 2013, a man attempted to bring 58 unidentifiable swim bladders across the border by hiding them in a cooler and concealing them with other fish and shrimp. Samples from the swim bladders were sent to the Marine Forensic Lab, where the scientists were able to confirm that they were, in fact, from totoaba. The lab also shared tissue samples with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for their casework, as they jointly managed many of these cross-border investigations with NOAA.

“Because that totoaba was seized in 1992 and transferred to the Marine Forensic Lab, we were able to further that investigation and many others,” Zetwo says. “That specimen helped us to confirm that these individuals were trafficking in endangered species. That evidence was then used by prosecutors to file criminal charges.”

When the lab began preparing to move into a smaller facility with limited freezer storage in 2021, the staff knew that the massive totoaba would not be able to move with them. With its genetic data sequenced and stored in an online database, there was no longer any need for the specimen to physically remain at the lab. Thus began the mission to rehome the totoaba after almost three decades in Charleston.

A large white cooler sits in the bed of a red pickup truck, parked in front of a waterfront vista.
Bidding farewell to Charleston before the journey to Washington, D.C. The totoaba was transported in this large cooler. Credit: Trey Knott/NOAA Fisheries

Second Life

When Kathy Moore of the Marine Forensic Lab reached out to Dr. Katherine Bemis at NOAA’s National Systematics Laboratory in Washington, D.C., Bemis was ecstatic. Acquiring a specimen as rare and scientifically valuable as this totoaba was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the lab. There are only 68 specimens in collections worldwide, including four smaller individuals housed in the Smithsonian’s National Fish Collection.

Moore and the staff of the Marine Forensic Lab determined that the totoaba would make the trek up to D.C., but transportation itself was complicated. “We were lucky to find a cooler big enough to transport it—we had actually started looking into using a tuna coffin,” Moore laughs. Once the totoaba arrived at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in May 2021, the work of preparing the specimen in the museum’s Osteology Prep Lab—located in the Smithsonian’s Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland—began.

Whether they are dried or frozen, many specimens that arrive at the National Museum of Natural History to be preserved as skeletons still have organic matter like flesh and scales attached to their bodies. To preserve these specimens, all of the tissue must be stripped from the carcass. But how do you ensure that every speck of tissue matter has been removed? With flesh-eating beetles, of course!

A fish skeleton with some flesh and scales attached sits on yellow plastic trays filled with small brown beetles.
The totoaba specimen in the midst of the cleaning process in the National Museum of Natural History’s Osteology Prep Lab. The small, dark dots on and around the carcass are all dermestid beetles. The lab’s beetle colony consumes any remaining tissue on an organism’s skeleton, preparing it for preservation. Credit: Inger Toraason/National Museum of Natural History

Ella Haigler and Inger Toraason of the Osteology Prep Lab work with their dermestid beetle “colleagues” on a regular basis to clean skeletons that come to the museum. As the curator of the totoaba specimen, Bemis worked with Toraason to prepare it to be skeletonized. The first step in the process was to document the fish by taking photographs and measurements. Then, they removed as much tissue as possible by hand, saving some scales to be kept with the skeleton. After that, it was time to let the beetles get to work. 

Thanks to the beetles’ small size, they can consume tiny bits of remaining organic matter that are too difficult to remove by hand, like pieces of tissue between the vertebrae. This process can take anywhere from weeks to months, depending on the size of the specimen. At a whopping 6 feet long and almost 200 pounds, this particular totoaba is one of the largest individuals of its species in a museum collection, greatly adding to its scientific value.

“The totoaba took a few months for the beetle colony to work through,” Toraason says. “It was really dried and desiccated from being stored in a freezer for so long, so it wasn’t the beetles’ favorite thing to eat,” he laughs. According to Toraason, the totoaba’s flesh was so dry that it resembled wood fibers more than tissue, so he and Bemis coined an affectionate nickname for the specimen: “Woody.”

A woman in a blue shirt and jeans holds a large fish skull in front of a tall filing cabinet. Bones are visible in a box in the filing cabinet.
Dr. Katherine Bemis holds the totoaba's preserved skull while speaking with students during an outreach event in April 2023. The rest of the fish's bones are visible in the boxes to the lower left of Bemis. Credit: Haley Randall/NOAA Fisheries

Once the beetles were finished with it, the totoaba went through a degreasing process, during which it was cycled through ammonia solutions over the course of another few months. “Most skeletons still have marrow and fat inside and on the bones, even after being stripped by the beetle colony,” says Haigler. “Fish are especially greasy, and that marrow and fat can attract pests once the skeleton is added to the collection. Degreasing removes those substances from the bones so that they’re truly clean.”

Finally, the totoaba went through a freezer cycle to kill any remaining pests. Then it was ready to be added to the Smithsonian’s National Fish Collection, which Bemis helps curate. Its skeleton is now stored in the archives of the National Museum of Natural History, and its data is recorded in the online Fishes Collection database. Researchers from around the world can put in requests to study this specimen or obtain a sample of its genetic material.  

"This specimen is special for a lot of reasons,” Bemis says. “It is one of only three skeletons of totoaba in collections worldwide and, of these, it is the largest and most complete. Even though it was collected 30 years ago, it is actually the most recently collected totoaba in any collection.”

The skeleton will also be used for educational purposes. While “Woody” met a sad ending in 1992, Bemis hopes that its skeleton can be used to spread awareness about the illegal wildlife trade and the challenges facing endangered species like vaquita and totoaba. “This is the only voucher specimen of a totoaba that has genetic tissue available, and we are already using samples from the specimen for new research,” Bemis shares. “Beyond its scientific value, ‘Woody’ can help us share the plight of the totoaba and vaquita with visitors, and hopefully inspire all to consider what actions they can take to conserve biodiversity.”

Three men smile at a camera; the man in the middle is holding a large fish skull.
Student researchers Norhafiz Hanafi (left), Baian Lin (middle), and Chih-Ren Tung (right) of Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Taiwan traveled all the way to Washington, D.C., to study totoaba and other fish species in the Sciaenidae family in July 2023. Credit: Dr. Katherine Bemis