Last weekend, Boris and I woke up early to visit the wholesale fish market of Ventanilla in Callao, the province next to Lima where the international airport is. One of two such markets in the metropolitan area, it represents a midway concentration node between what is sold and selected off at port, and what is bought to be sold or served to the end consumer. The only other major wholesale fish market I had been to before was the Fulton Fish Terminal in the Bronx, New York and I was very curious to get an impression of what is being caught and sold in Peru in comparison. Those of you who know me have seen my concern for marine life gradually increase over the last four years. I am preoccupied by how it is unrelentingly harvested beyond our sight and perception as part of our regular food supply.
We arrived around 5h45 and the market was in full bustle. I worked myself up into a photographic frenzy and before long the market police came and asked for our documents. We were surprisingly allowed to continue with little interrogation and for the duration of our visit, we found everyone to be welcoming of our queries and us taking pictures. Most of the fish was being unloaded from truck trailers where it was either still fresh in cardboard / styrofoam boxes / plastic crates, or frozen, sometimes with entire specimens lying directly in trailer-high stacks of dry ice. From there, quickly negotiated sales were transferred to carts and then hauled away through the throngs of people. Let me disclaim already that there was no tuna to report on: I was told that it is all sold at port (you can already count on a future excursion to see what else is being sold there). The wholesale market being close to the airport, it's also possible that the highest value specimens are dropped off for air cargo designation on their way to the point of sale.
There was an unusual abundance of swordfish and shark-like, long and slender fish for sale. They were displayed everywhere, headless and for the most part fin-less. It was swordfish season I was eventually told. But what about these sharks and smaller shark-like fish that here they call toyo? Why, very sadly, was there also so much frozen sunfish (strangely, pez luna, "moon fish", in Peru)? "They are caught far away, the fishermen go out for 15 to 30 days at a time to catch those" was the response. This means that they are using enormous nets and longlines of hundreds of kilometres that are reeled in over large distances indiscriminately catching many different species on their path. The thought sickens me, but it's common practice around the world. So why were they lacking their fins? "Those can't be commercialized here, but there are two guys who buy them all from us to send them overseas to China, if you wait around until 9 or so, maybe you can see them". I was told they fetch a price of up to 120 soles (~$45) a kilo. At least the primary goal seemed to be selling the fish, unlike some areas where specimens finned onboard are cruelly tossed back in the sea to bleed to death. Can we see the fins, do you have them in the trailer?
It also seemed to be cephalopod season. A moratorium on fishing octopus had just been declared (we found only two stalls selling it in small amounts) but giant cuttlefish and squid were everywhere in impressive volumes, often already separated into different parts. Their incredible limp carcasses impressed me only out of imagining these large animals in motion in the dark depths of the Pacific. The abundance of crustaceans and molluscs was equally noteworthy, their presentations suggestive of the mixed seafood ceviches they would probably end up in. This most Peruvian of dishes doesn't do much for the individual appreciation of its constituent parts though and I have no idea how the coastline can be fertile enough to replenish this amount for every day and market across the country.
Next to the freshwater fish section (featuring the amoured catfish a friend of mine studied in its invasive take-over of southern Mexico rivers), one young vendor showed me that he was selling sea bass and devil fish, the only one to have them in the market. Since working in restaurants in Toronto which renounced serving endangered Chilean sea bass, I asked him if it was alright to sell this one from Peru. He told me that he was studying gastronomy and the only related news he had encountered was from an e-mail he received telling him not to support Vietnamese bass (mero baza) an imported freshwater fish which was being sold at far lower prices (10 soles per kilo instead of 25). How can it be competitive to ship fish from Vietnam to Peru, but also how great is it that such awareness is building in Peru about what to eat and not to eat, beyond the high-end premises of Mistura and fine-dining. From all the people Boris and I spoke with, we got the strong impression that they stood for the products they were selling, that they were interested in talking about them and even having them photographed. At Fulton terminal, vendors responded to questions as if they were nosy pries that could endanger their business.
After some emoliente and bread with avocado, we were ready to take on the second planned phase of the morning - the market at the Callao fishermen's wharf. The taxi driver warned us that it would be a little dangerous there, but when asked about the wholesale market we had just been to, he also thought it was dangerous so we proceeded. The wharf was an impressive sight: more than a hundred small boats lied still in a small cove with a giant super container carrier behind them. All eyes were on us and I barely got two pictures when the head of the fishing syndicate came over to threateningly tell us that photography was prohibited and that several groups had already taken notice of my camera and were ready to steal it. Right after three men rapidly approached us at the end of the pier and just managing to walk away on the side before we could be cornered, we headed for the syndicate office and opted to set off.
The sea had been agitated, no boat had been able to go out and fish and therefore everyone was nerve-wrecked. There had been no market. Abraham from the syndicate office and the ceviche vendor outside got rid of a little more strict advice on us but ended up offering me the possibility of spending a night out fishing on a boat, and also organizing a police escort should we choose to visit again. Time will tell if I take either opportunity. I wanted to share breakfast with my exploration mate and was anxious to show him some of the fish we'd seen in motion (cf. BBC Planet Earth (6:45)). By eating from the sea, you are directly extracting from a wild and pristine source, do so conscientiously and figure out where your food comes from and make sure those selling it to you know too. Now we have a baseline by which to compare the other wholesale market in Jesus María!