Invasive ‘Devil Fish’ Plague Waters of Mexico’s Tabasco

Pez diablo: “devil fish.” That’s what locals in the Mexican state of Tabasco call the armored catfish that has invaded their waters.

Also known as suckermouths, the species is popular with aquarium owners because the fish eats the algae that pollute tanks. But in the wild, that same behavior erodes shorelines and devastates underwater plant life.

A Mexican social enterprise called Acari is trying to do something about it — by creating a taste for these aquatic terrors.

Francisco Mendoza, a 38-year-old fisherman from the village of Simón Sarlat in Tabasco, has fished in the region’s lagoons and streams since he was 15.

“We didn’t even know the fish before,” Mendoza says. Róbalo, or snook, used to be abundant. Those are nearly gone, their marshy habitat taken over by the invasive pez diablo.

A fish that’s a survivor
No one knows for sure how suckermouths became such a problem, but they now plague Texas, Florida and southern Mexico. It may be the “Nemo effect” — that fish prized for cleaning aquariums grew too big for their tanks and were set free in the wild. Others believe that aquaculture facilities inadvertently released them. It’s likely a combination. But once in the waterways, their population exploded. The pez diablo matures rapidly, lays 500 eggs at a time and lives seven to 15 years. It is encased in hard scales, and can breathe outside water for up to four hours. In other words, it is a survivor.

Sustainable fisheries specialist Mike Mitchell also grew up fishing, and when he took an environmental science class in high school, something clicked. Learning about the efficiency of producing fish compared to other animal sources of protein, “I saw the viability of fish to feed the world’s population,” he says.

So, in 2014, with a degree from the University of Pennsylvania and several years of working in Latin America under his belt, Mitchell applied for a Fulbright research grant with a proposal to analyze freshwater fishing in Mexico. When he started his research in Tabasco, he talked with countless fishermen, who kept asking: “What the heck am I going to do with the pez diablo?”

Mitchell checked out what was already known about the fish, particularly the research of Salomón Páramo-Delgadillo of the University Juárez Autónoma de Tabasco (UJAT). Mitchell’s first plan of attack was to turn the pez diablo into fish meal. He says that effort turned out to be “incredibly tedious, low yield, and not sustainable.”

Plan B was to eat the fish. “I thought about Chilean sea bass,” Mitchell says. “It used to be called the Patagonian toothfish, and it’s a slimy creature.” But, rebranded, Chilean sea bass became a delicacy, found on the menus of upscale restaurants around the globe.

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