Move over, beef jerky: El Diablito fish jerky is made of devil fish--and it's helping save jobs and the environment

Manufactured in B.C., the high-protein snack is restoring ecosystems and saving jobs in Mexico

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      Beef jerky has some freshwater competition. El Diablito is a new brand of fish jerky that recently launched in Canada. And with product being made out of wild-caught, invasive devil fish, the company behind it is helping restore natural ecosystems in Mexico while boosting employment there.

      El Diablito means "little devil" in Spanish, and the title of the new small-batch jerky is a play on the “devil fish” name in Mexico. The species’ real name is the suckermouth or armored catfish. 

      “The fish is a freshwater fish originally from the Amazon where it is commonly consumed in soups or grilled whole,” says Mike Mitchell, cofounder and CEO of Acari Fish, which makes El Diablito. “In Brazil, communities make a special fish meal called piracuí that they use to make fried balls like croquettes. 

      “Similar to many invasive fish stories, the devil fish is a popular aquarium fish but is now invasive in at least 15 countries around the world and has hit Mexico especially hard,” Mitchell tells the Straight, noting that the fish outcompetes native species and is decimating the fishing industry in that country. “Because of poor information and stigma, there's virtually no market for the devil fish in Mexico, meaning that fishermen are throwing away literally tonnes of the fish every day.  Mexican fishermen nicknamed this fish the devil fish because of the havoc it has wreaked on fisheries.”

      Mitchell first visited the state of Tabasco in 2014 via a Fulbright research grant to study small-scale fish farming in rural communities. Upon learning about the loathed suckermouth, he began thinking of ways to transform people’s perception of the fish and create ways for local fishermen to sustain their livelihood.

      Acari Fish.

      He began giving workshops and cooking demonstrations with Lupita Vidal, a friend and chef who heads La Cevichería restaurant in the Tabasco state capital of Villahermosa. He never imagined his journey would just be beginning.

      “I never had any intention to create a business around the fish until 2017, when I spent time with Las Patronas, an NGO in the state of Veracruz that makes food and tosses it to migrants riding freight trains north to the U.S.,” Mitchell says. “This experience inspired me to experiment with ways to turn the fish into a shelf-stable food for people on-the-go.  Lupita lent me her household dehydrator, I decided to give jerky a try, and the rest is history.”

      The team’s first batch far exceeded expectations, and Acari Fish was born.

      “Because the fish itself is rather tough and doesn't have much of a fishy smell or taste, the jerky came out tasting and feeling incredibly similar to beef jerky,” Mitchell says. “By finding markets abroad for this ‘trash fish’, we're boosting local employment and incomes in these communities where we work in Tabasco.”

      The company’s main operations are based in the town of Simón Sarlat.  Mitchell says its fish processors earn, on average, 40 percent more than they did before, while fishermen often double their daily income by selling Acari their devil fish by-catch. 

      Acari imports the fish and manufactures the jerky with a copacker in Nanaimo.

      “We ended up making our jerky in B.C. after the US Congress effectively banned most catfish imports, including from Canada, in 2018 to protect American catfish farmers,” Mitchell explains. “My cofounder and I are both American but after the regulatory change, we had to look for another way to fulfill our social mission and bring El Diablito jerky to market.  We connected with some great partners in B.C., and we launched our products in January 2020.  

      You can find El Diablito fish jerky in a handful of BC retail stores like Pomme Natural Market, City Avenue, and Windsor Meats.  It’s also available online and via Amazon Canada.  

      More information is at Acari Fish.