Reinventing the Invasive Devil Fish in Mexico
To build a national industry around the hated, invasive "pez diablo" or devil fish in Mexico, in turn boosting local employment.
A brief video about our work in Tabasco and impact in the community.
Lead Applicant Organization Name
Lead Applicant Organization Type
Small company (under 50 employees)
Website of Legally Registered Entity
How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?
Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?
Oakland, California, USA and Villahermosa, Tabasco, Mexico
Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?
United States of America and Mexico
Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?
Tabasco, Mexico with future plans for Southeastern Mexico including the states of Campeche, Chiapas and Veracruz.
What country is your selected Place located in?
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
I moved to Tabasco, Mexico in 2014 with a Fulbright Research Grant to study the socioeconomic impact of small-scale fish farming in rural communities. Through this work, I became aware of the severity of the "devil fish" invasion in Tabasco and throughout the region. I began asking around at my partner university and developed a workshop series to impart in these communities in my free time to help educate people about the fish and promote its consumption. These experiences led to a role with the United Nations Development Program in Tabasco and my initial one year stay turned into nearly three years.
I continued to impart workshops and cooking demonstrations, which eventually developed into an idea to process the devil fish in these fishing communities and sell the fillet to restaurants and corporate pantries. We began selling devil fish in 2016 and formally founded Acari in 2018.
Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.
We work in rural fishing communities in Tabasco, Mexico. In Tabasco fishing is the primary economic activity for approximately 13,000 families across the state. The state's capital, Villahermosa, is home to only about 15% of the state's population with the majority spread across municipal capitals and rural areas. Although the state experienced an oil boom in the 1980s and 1990s, the state has remained primarily agricultural with products like beef, banana, cacao and papaya as its dominant crops.
The primary language is Spanish with a few indigenous communities throughout the state that speak mostly Chol and Chontal. The main cultural events are the state fair as well as annual municipal fairs. Freshwater seafood like tilapia and shrimp are common foods. Perhaps the most famous dish is the whole grilled alligator gar fish, known in Spanish as Pejelgarto. Mexico's current president hails from Tabasco and has been dubbed "El Peje", a reference to the state delicacy. Other staples include corn (mainly in tortillas), rice, beans and spicy salsas made with habanero. Tabasco unfortunately has one of the highest rates of obesity and diabetes in Mexico, due in part to the high consumption of sugar and sugary beverages, especially Coca-Cola.
Tabasco has a very hot, humid climate, with average temperatures around 33C throughout the year. Although the state is very lush and crisscrossed with rivers and lakes, the fishing industry remains almost entirely artisanal. Likewise, fish farming is conducted almost exclusively on a small-scale with only a few companies producing more than 10 tons of mainly tilapia per year.
Unfortunately governments and private enterprise never invested in general infrastructure during the oil boom and concentrated investment only in the petroleum sector. Few rural communities have running water or stable electricity. Even in the capital Villahermosa, running water is intermittent and is often pumped directly from the river to houses, bypassing water treatment facilities. The lack of infrastructure has exacerbated poverty and unemployment especially after the fall of petroleum. Tabasco currently has the highest unemployment rate in Mexico at 8.23%. Furthermore, agricultural producers almost exclusively sell primary products to processors in other states or even abroad since Tabasco does not have the processing infrastructure needed to create value-added products.
What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
The invasive “devil fish” or devil fish has decimated Mexican freshwater fisheries and left thousands of fishermen without work. The devil fish, also known as the suckermouth or armored catfish, was first captured in Michoacán in 1995. Since then, the fish has spread to at least 13 states across Mexico. Currently, it accounts for 70% to 80% of wild freshwater capture. This has had a particularly deleterious effect in the state of Tabasco where an estimated 13,000 families depend on freshwater fishing as their primary economic activity.
Native to the Amazon region, the fish is highly territorial and consumes the eggs of native fish species, leading to a dramatic decline in the native fish population. The fish is also covered in rough bony plates that shred nets and cut fishermen’s hands, contributing to its hated status. Owing to this stigma and poor information, the fish is generally discarded as by-catch as many fishermen believe the fish to be poisonous or bad tasting. As a result, the devil fish has had a dual impact on the food system. First, the fish has caused a significant decline in traditional species like mojarra that are commonly consumed. Furthermore, the devil fish has caused a serious decline in fishermen's income, eroding their purchasing power, which is tied directly to the diet diversity they are able to offer their families.
Looking towards the future, the devil fish problem will likely only grow more severe. Combined with other factors like habitat loss and overfishing, wild fisheries will continue to decline heading towards 2050. It is therefore important that we establish an industry around the invasive devil fish while also investing in aquaculture infrastructure throughout the region.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
We are developing an industry around the devil fish in Mexico, creating new economic opportunities using a fish previously discarded as by-catch. The concept of our work is simple - train local fishermen to process and package fillet, in turn, providing a valuable new source of employment while mitigating environmental damage caused by the devil fish. Through our processing as well as community workshops, we are changing the perception of the devil fish in rural areas and are promoting its consumption.
We market fillet to restaurants and corporate kitchens. Our primary product, however, is El Diablito jerky which tastes and feels like beef jerky but with more protein and less fat. Every bite of El Diablito helps remove destructive devil fish from freshwater ecosystems, helping restoring the natural environment while boosting incomes of affected fishermen. Additionally, consumers in places like the US and Canada are increasingly looking for delicious, innovative and healthy products they can feel good about eating.
High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.
By working with fishermen to capture and process the devil fish, we’re helping restore natural fisheries while boosting incomes by an average of 40%. We currently employ 5 full-time fish processors and purchase fish from approximately 10 fishermen in our first module in Tabasco, Mexico. We expect to hire 4-5 additional employees and begin purchasing fishermen from at least 40 additional fishermen in the region by March 2020. A fish that used to be viewed as a plague by these rural fishermen is now a new source of employment and economic growth. We have also begun to work with commercial fishermen in Florida to purchase their devil fish by-catch, providing an important source of new revenue. Our El Diablito jerky has more protein but less fat than beef and comes packed with vital micronutrients like B12 and Selenium which bring health benefits to the public.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
Hundreds or even thousands of tons of devil fish are needlessly thrown away each day in Mexico. This hated, destructive species has a multi-faceted impact on the food system in Mexico and has the potential to improve the seafood supply chain and reduce red meat consumption in the U.S. and Canada.
First, the devil fish outcompetes and eats the eggs of native species, causing a significant decline in the population of fish like mojarra, pejelagarto and snook that have traditionally sustained these fishing communities in Tabasco and throughout the region. Because of the devil fish, many fishermen have been forced to look elsewhere for employment and have seen their earnings decline dramatically. By working with fishermen to capture and process the devil fish, we’re helping restore natural fisheries while boosting incomes by an average of 40%.
Within the U.S. and Canada, we distribute fillet to restaurants and corporate kitchens looking to reduce their ecological footprint and improve their seafood sourcing. Because of its unique texture, the devil fish is a great substitute for red meat in foods like meatballs and burgers. This can However, our real market is jerky and other meat snacks. This industry is currently valued at $3 billion annually and because our jerky tastes and feels like beef, we want to take on beef jerky, helping drastically reduce water usage while providing a healthier, more nutritious substitute.
How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?