How Upcycled Food Can Create Economic Opportunity in Developing Areas
At Acari, we’re flipping the script on the hated, invasive “devil fish” in Mexico. I first came across the devil fish while working as a researcher in rural fishing communities in the southern Mexican state of Tabasco. In each town it was the same story. This fish appeared out of nowhere a decade before, at first just occasionally being pulled out in nets, but by 2015 representing up to 70% of the wild fish capture. Commonly known in English as the suckermouth catfish, Mexican fishermen nicknamed it the “devil fish” because of the wide range of environmental and economic issues it causes. The devil fish eats the eggs of native fish species. Its sharp, bony skin shreds nets and slices fishermen’s hands. The fish even causes soil erosion by burrowing up to two meters into riverbanks to lay its eggs. And because of stigma, and frankly, its ugly face, there’s no market for the devil fish in Mexico, meaning fishermen are catching it by the ton every day yet have to throw it away.
Image Credit: Acarí
Once I realized the scale of the problem, I partnered with fisheries scientists from the local university and a chef friend to give free workshops and cooking demos in these communities. It remained a fun side gig until 2017 when I visited Las Patronas, a women-led NGO in rural Veracruz. These women work 365 days a year to make food, package it and toss it to migrants riding freight trains northward. My time with them inspired me to find a way to turn our fish into a ready-to-eat food for people on the go. I experimented with a few ideas before my friend lent me her household dehydrator to give jerky a shot. Our first batch blew my expectations out of the water, and that’s when El Diablito jerky was born.
Image Credit: Acarí
We now have a processing facility in Tabasco where we fillet and package devil fish. We still sell some fillet in Mexico, but we export almost everything to Canada (and soon to the US) where we turn it into jerky. We have 5 full-time fish processors that earn 40% more on average than they were previously. By selling us their devil fish by-catch, local fishermen are often doubling or tripling their daily income, earning more selling “trash fish” than from native commercial species. To date we’ve removed about 60 tons of devil fish from local waters, most of which would’ve gone to waste before we found a new purpose for them. In January we launched El Diablito jerky in Canada and plan on launching in the US later this summer. As we grow our market, we’ll expand production across Southeastern Mexico through a modular production system. We already have our next partnerships in place where we’ll provide local entrepreneurs with the technical expertise, logistical support and guaranteed market for them to set up their own production facilities and sell us their fillet. We envision the day when we’ll be sourcing devil fish from a dozen facilities across Mexico and the devil fish’s hated status is a thing of the past.
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Author Bio: Mike Mitchell
Mike arrived in Tabasco in 2014 through a Fulbright research grant to study small-scale fish farming in rural communities. After learning about the 'pez diablo,' Mike fell in love with the idea and challenge of transforming the perception of the fish, and in turn, creating new economic opportunities for local fishermen. Mike graduated from UPenn with concentrations in Marketing and Environmental Policy & Management.