There is a correction on this article. It concerns the way octopi are caught. It has been rewritten.
It was the second time Mary and I had gone to Sisal within a few weeks. The first time it was blazing hot, we missed our connection with the people who were going to be showing us around, and we dined at the so-so fried fish place on the main street with a view of the water.
We had been on a fruitless quest for an octopus raising organization we had heard about and the only interesting marine life artifact we found were some huge circular traps that were on the beach and in the water, some ways from town. (See previous article for photos.)
This time was way different. We easily found our friends, who are in the fishing business, and had a fabulous day. Elda, Ignacio, and the kids, Alejandra and Mauricio lead in their car and Mary and I followed.
The first thing we learned was that the circular nets we saw on our last trip were not for octopi, as we’d thought, but for Esmedregal,* a giant fish usually hunted for sport. You know, one of those fish where they string the poor thing up by its tail and photograph it next to the happy little sportsfisherman.
When we asked about the octopus breeding project we’d heard about, Ignacio said that sadly, it is no more. Apparently it was a program implemented by UNAM (National University of Mexico), but an explosion destroyed the facility. They grew the creatures from eggs (which look like grapes). I would have loved to have seen a little tiny octopus. At some point, this project might resume.
Updated: At this time, Sisal fishermen and fishermen all along the Gulf coast are fishing for adult octopi by extending 20-foot bamboo poles from either end of their launches and on each, tying about 10 lines, each with a live crab secured to the end. The doomed crabs move their legs around and the octopi gulp at them, affixing themselves to the crab, which takes a while to ingest and digest. The fishermen simply pull the huge poles back into the boat to collect the octopi dangling from the lines. A unique fishing method. This correction thanks to Mary and Elda. I wish I could reproduce the cute drawing Elda made for me the other day at Starbucks of a fishing boat with it’s long poles sticking out, with little crabs attached to the ends of multiple lines.
The fishermen work in co-ops. Each works as an autonomous group and seems to have privately owned fishing boats. The fishermen are out all day in the sun with no shelter. They work their butts off.
Eladio and Elda have an interest in one of the fishing co-ops. The men who worked there showed us tubs containing an impressive variety of marine creatures. There were tanks of octopi, all dead, or near death, because their heads had been neatly turned inside out by the fishermen.
I know I should have asked why they did that, but the moment escaped me.
The fishermen also catch grouper, boquinete, mackerel, chachi, sardines, red snapper, lobster, and many other fish.
Most of the octopus is sold to Japan and Europe. They are a great source of revenue for the beach communities. Octopus season is August 1 to December 15 and is strictly controlled because the animals start breeding in January by laying “millions of eggs” according to our friend.
There were baby sharks (cazon), both the standard variety and hammerheads. Also adult sharks.
Aside from fishing for profit, the Sisal citizens are proud to be protecting giant sea turtles. The turtles come in to lay eggs in the Spring. They are well protected. Interfering with their movements, killing the turtles or taking eggs, brings big legal trouble. The beaches are patrolled by Semarnat officials in four-wheel beach buggies. Once the turtles lay their eggs on the beach, workers collect them and put them in a safe place until they’re hatched. Although they release them into the sea carefully, apparently only ten out 100 survive childhood. Baby turtlehood. Whatever.
In August, there are informative tours for children, where they learn about conservation. On these tours, the kids are each given a hatchling turtle and told to give it a name. Then, at sunset they go to the beach, check to make sure the predatory birds have retired for the evening, and release the turtles into the water.
We learned that the newest, and most remunerative marine crop is sea cucumbers. Those are those squishy things that lay about on the ocean floor, all green and gooey and cucumber-like, and when you pick them up, they expel their innards. An unappealing animal in every way. Our guide said that sea cucumber is a delicacy in Japan.
I fear that Japan is getting a bad rap here. I’ve never heard of sea cucumber being on the Japanese menu.** Anyway, divers collect these creatures manually from the sea floor all along the coast. A single diver can pick up 40-60 sea cucumbers per hour. They have to ascend slowly so the animals can decompress or they die immediately.
Then, the co-ops boil masses of smelly sea cucumbers in seawater, which makes life difficult for anyone within a quarter of a mile, and then dry them in the sun until they’re hard, lightweight little things. In Japan, they’re rehydrated.
Ten kilos of fresh sea cucumber equals one kilo of dried. Japanese buyers pay $1,000 USD for a kilo of dried sea cucumber. Can you imagine? They buy from a large Yucatecan company that buys from the fishermen’s co-ops.
Eladio said that a Korean family had started the first sea cucumber processing operation in Sisal, with government permission in 1999. It was a monopoly until the father of the family died a few years later. Many co-op groups vied for licenses and the government ended up awarding them to six co-ops.
Elda said that a neighbor down the road from them boils sea cucumbers in a tank in his back yard and that the smell is unbearable.
There’s also a huge shrimp farm up the road from Sisal. In two months, they process about 170,000 kilos of shrimp. Makes you wonder how there can be any left.
In the middle of things, we had lunch at an excellent restaurant. It was so good, I’ve made it a separate article.
We went back to the co-op later on in the afternoon to watch the fishing boats come in and unload. Mary spotted an alligator in the water and the fishermen said that they, like the gulls, are attracted to the boats because they sometimes throw bits of fish overboard. The fisherman also said that alligators have been known to approach the sea wall and use their heavy tails to knock down dogs, which are barking along the quay. If the alligators are lucky, the dogs fall into the water and become lunch.
Elda said that in the summer, the black Christ figure from Tetiz is trucked to Sisal and stays for nine days. They put him in a boat and go out into the ocean. Everyone comes to watch.
*What is an Esmedregal, you might ask? The Web is a gold mine. Some of its English names are: cobia, jackfish, yellowtail amberjack, jack mackeral, black snapper, lemon fish and black king fish. The Latin name seems to be Rachycentron canadum.
** In fact, the sea cucumber is consumed in China and Malaysia.