By Jan Chaiken and Marcia Chaiken
Given the thousands of kilometers of coastline and the great quantity of fresh lake water in Mexico, it is not surprising that before the Spanish arrived, indigenous people were heavily involved in ocean and inland fishing. It is notable however, that the pre-Hispanic residents also engaged in farming of fish. For example, the extensive inland lake that once surrounded the Aztec capital (now Mexico City) was used to farm fish at that time. Today Lake Texcoco has mostly vanished, along with the pre-Hispanic fish farms.
The 16th-century Spanish conquistadores forbade the indigenous population to fish or raise fish for their own use, as they were trying to develop this market for European consumption. Although fishing as an individual occupation was gradually reintroduced in Mexico and later commercial fishing became a major industry, it was not until the 1970s that any perceptible amount of aquaculture re-appeared.
The term aquaculture (in Spanish acuacultura or acuicultura) refers to the rearing of aquatic animals and cultivating aquatic species for food, including not only fish but also crustaceans, mollusks, and seaweed. Fish and other aquaculture products are raised in floating tanks through which lake or ocean water flows naturally, and are fed controlled diets. The practice of aquaculture was in part prompted by potential financial reward, but also by environmental concerns. A controversial aspect of marine fishing is called “by-catch” – the unavoidable capture in fishing nets of animals and plants that are not used for human consumption. By-catch is not only fiscally wasteful but is responsible for wreaking havoc on marine environments. Aquaculture, on the contrary, results in close to 100% of production being sold for food or other uses. Eighty percent of aquaculture products are used for human consumption.
Mexico now ranks around 23rd in the world in the annual production of its aquaculture economic sector. Most countries ranking higher than Mexico are in Asia, especially island nations with extensive coastlines. Mexico ranks higher in annual aquaculture production than, for example, Canada, the United Kingdom, Russia, New Zealand, Peru, and Australia.
Mexico’s lengthy coastline is a competitive advantage in two ways: first, tanks for commercial growing of marine animals are located close to shore in the Pacific Ocean, the Gulf of California, and the Gulf of Mexico; and, second, ports on the coast provide easy access for delivery of harvested product to the interior of Mexico or for export to the Americas and Asia. Mexico experienced an increase in aquaculture of 27% from 1986 (the first year statistics were collected) to 2010 but then suffered a three-year sharp decline because of a widespread virus infection in the types of food that are fed to fish.
In recent years the growth of aquaculture has exceeded its earlier vigor in Mexico, with a 34% increase in five years. Currently Mexico is one of only five countries showing sustained growth of inland aquaculture. Baja California and the states of Jalisco, Michoacán, and Veracruz are the most important locations for offshore marine aquaculture in Mexico. Inland aquaculture (primarily trout) is found mainly in Sinaloa, Sonora, Tabasco, and Tamaulipas.
The aquaculture companies pride themselves on crecimiento azul, which is the watery version of a “green economy,” namely one that is sustainable, resource efficient, and environmentally sound. Around the world, the proportion of naturally occurring wild fish stocks that are biologically sustainable decreased from 90% in 1974 to under two-thirds in recent years, which means that a third of the seafood produced by commercial fisheries comes from fishing locations that will not survive into the future. By contrast, seafood purchased from aquaculture will continue to be available or increase over time. Aquaculture also provides safe, well-paying jobs and is a boost to the local economy wherever it is installed.
The main types of seafood produced by aquaculture in Mexico are mojarra (the species varies, most likely a bream or tilapia), oysters, huachinango (red snapper), trout, and tilapia, with lesser amounts of camarón (shrimp), abalone, and tuna. (Worldwide, the most important aquacultural product is tilapia.) Shrimp account for under 10% of Mexico’s aquaculture production, but the amount of shrimp production is increasing rapidly from year to year.
There is a debate about whether farmed fish are as nutritious and as tasty as fish that are wild. The commercial fisheries would have you believe that farmed fish are full of toxins and dangerous. The actual answer is based on local aquaculture practices. Farms that frequently test their water and fish food to be sure there is no toxic contamination are likely to produce wholesome fish and seafood. That is one reason fish farms are not promoted as tourist attractions and are off-limits for water sports – the companies want to avoid pollution. The only visitors likely to be found at a fish farm are scientists, technical consultants, potential investors, government inspectors, and participants in conferences of aquaculture organizations.
In addition, by being raised on feed that is high in omega oils, farmed fish actually are more likely to promote good health in humans than are wild-caught fish. But what about the taste? We have friends who swear they can distinguish farmed fish from wild fish by the taste. However, judging by the way they snarf down fish they do not know were farmed, we have our doubts.
For more information, check out the website of the Mexican government agency that supports aquaculture (among other things) – the Center for Studies in Sustainable Rural Development and Food Sovereignty (Centro de Estudios para el Desarollo Rural Sustentable y la Soberania Alimentaria, http://www.cedrssa.gob.mx). And ¡buen provecho!