By Ivett de las Mercedes
HAVANA TIMES – The need to put food on the table has once again put catfish consumption at the heart of this debate. Known in Cuba as claria, it is a cheap option for the Cuban people. Alfredo Guerra (54 years old), a fisherman who has made Havana’s Almedrares river his home, tells us about his experiences with this fish.
HT: Why do you believe that some people have a distaste for eating catfish?
Alfredo Guerra: I think that the claria’s ability to adapt to the worst living conditions has a lot to do with it. I know people on the Isle of Youth who have found them in sewers and wastewater pipes. I have a niece living there who uncovered the drainpipe to attach the washing machine pipe, when she came across the head of a catfish and she was screaming for a good while. Truth be told, it’s a really ugly fish, I was even taken aback the first time I saw one come out of a swamp. My wife refuses to clean it, although she loves it once it’s in fillets.
The question of safety & the market
HT: Even so, Claria is high in demand among tourists and some social groups.
AG: Of course. On-request retail points are a gem for fishermen. Of course, not all fishermen have principles. I had one myself when I used to live on the Isle of Youth. I always used to fish in rivers or dams and would hand in the meat clean and ready to be cooked. Generally-speaking, Claria fishermen can be separated into two groups. There are those who fish it for their own consumption, or their family’s or to sell it with a clean conscience. Then you have those who don’t have a conscience and fish in unsanitary places without taking the consequences into account. These places can even be toxic.
HT: Do customers trust the product source?
AG: Not everyone. Some people ask you where you went fishing for it. Some prefer it in fillets, others in pieces, but there are even people who want the innards. There are tourists who want to get to know the fisherman and they pay a good price to see how we clean Claria, they even take photos. There are also farmers who buy it to make fodder for the animals they rear I think, normally pigs and chickens.
HT: Did you know that Claria is considered to be one of the 100 most harmful invasive and exotic species in the world?
AG: If scientists hadn’t reached this conclusion, any rural person or fisherman could tell you this based on their own experience. Claria does away with all of the other fish in rivers, you can’t find tenches, tilapias or Cuban cichlids (biajaca), much less trout and wolf fish. Not to mention Trachemys callirostris turtles and small crocodiles. When they are hungry, they walk on land like people and eat chickens and their eggs. They even eat ducks and small pigs. They even eat each other. Here in the Almendrares river, there was always a wide range of fish, but every time the catfish get in, they leave nothing behind.
They are not pretty but have good meat
HT: Do you fish here regularly?
AG: Yes, I’ve been coming here to fish for many years. Sometimes, my wife comes with me, although she has a fright every time she sees a living fish. Just imagine a 15kg fish hanging off a hook, with a huge head and whiskers. Anyone would be frightened. She always gets a bit agitated, and sometimes I’m afraid that somebody will report me and we won’t be able to come back to the park again. She is also worried that they might hurt me because, one time, I was taking it off the hook and I got a really ugly and deep wound from one of its fins.
Fishing is my only livelihood and if I’m not careful, we won’t have any food and money. I always try to catch two, one to sell and one for us to eat. We come really early, before people start coming. The park is always full of lovers and families with children who come to go on the rides and to have a lunch picnic, and they scare the fish away. Sometimes, we come at night although it’s risky because you never know where a thief is going to come from.
Catfish cage farming
HT: What do you think about the new wave of Claria cage farming?
AG: Aquaculture has always been around, it’s a shame that it isn’t being done with ocean fishes. I don’t know if it is being done, I haven’t heard about it even from private fish farmers, but I’m just a fisherman. If I was given the chance to have my own bit of shoreline where I could put a cage and raise fish, I would be the happiest man in the world.
Cuba is surrounded by sea, I don’t know why the Cuban people don’t have fish to eat either. I imagine that the US blockade affects our ability to build boats and rowboats, and then there’s the issue of fuel shortages, of course. Claria farming is a good thing, as long as great care is taken when there is heavy rain and hurricanes. In my humble opinion, it should only be done in the months when it doesn’t rain. Hurricanes have a lot to do with Claria propagating on our island.
HT: So, do you think selling Claria on the national fish retail network would be a good idea to feed the population?
AG: If the Claria comes from breeding centers, then people don’t have to worry about what they are eating. It’s a very rich and nutritious meat; I can assure you of that. You can also eat it as minced meat, a hamburger or croquette. My wife is an expert in hiding it and if she makes a stew with vegetables, you’ll lick your fingers it’s that good.
I believe it would be good to offer a variety, as it’s better for us to be able to choose between catfish and ocean fish. Between the pandemic and the US blockade, Claria is an option that can’t be overlooked, nor can we ignore safety and care protocols in breeding centers, as it would really be terrible if we came across a swarm of Clarias invading the city.