Why Chefs Around The World Are Choosing To Use Mexican Red Octopus

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Celebrated last Saturday, World Ocean Day is meant to bring awareness of the precarious state of our oceans and the resources we harvest from them. Because of initiatives such as this one, there is a significant increase in concern for the ocean (91%, up from 82% in 2022) and overfishing (rose from 41% to 47% in the last two years) among American seafood consumers.

According to a survey run by research consultancy GlobeScan, on behalf of London-based Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), there has been a jump in desire for third-party labelling of environmental claims and for traceable/trackable seafood. We used to see these attitudes strongest among older generations, but we’re now seeing it across age groups.

Few people know that Yucatan, Mexico, has one of the world’s most important octopus fisheries in the world, producing around 30,000 metric tons annually, representing roughly 10% of the world octopus harvest. It is the most commercially important species in the Americas, with much of the catch exported to the European Union.

Incredibly, Yucatan’s octopus fishery is a small-scale industry that uses an artisanal fishing method to harvest red octopus (Octopus maya) and common octopus (O. americanus) which does not damage the ecosystem nor depletes populations. The fishery has social and economic benefits in Mexico, and broader relevance as demand for octopus rises globally.

Yucatan’s octopus fishermen utilize a unique, targeted technique in which they keep their small boats adrift, the length of time depending on the weather and the abundance of the catch. 16 ft bamboo poles called jimbas are set at the bow and stern of the boat. Waxed thread cords are attached to the jimbas, with the other side tied to the bait — usually crabs — to catch the octopus.

There is no hook or other form of fishing gear, only the thread with the bait. The octopus will grab the bait and wrap itself around the thread, holding the bait as the fisherman manually lifts it to the boat. The fishermen sell their catch to larger companies such as Promarmex and Maspesca, which process, package, and ship the octopus to markets worldwide.

However, due to several circumstances including natural disasters, illegal fishing and poaching, and outside influences (such as Chinese interest in local species like sea cucumbers), the fisheries in the area started to get depleted, and the local economy declined.

Ricardo Novelo, a fisherman from the small town of Celstún, became concerned. He decided to reach out to local authorities for help and guidance, eventually convincing other fishermen to form a fishing cooperative, Sociedad Cooperativa Cayo Arenas, to strengthen their business collectively.

His daughter Margarita was studying business administration; her plan was to move to the big city and have a lucrative career. But seeing her father’s struggles and the needs of her community, she decided to stay in Celstún and help. She now manages all business aspects of the cooperative and is working alongside her father to continue finding best practices to maintain a healthy species population.

Seeing the success of the model and the cooperative, more fishermen became interested in learning and joining the efforts. Now, several coops are getting organized to look for solutions as a community.

These grassroots sustainability efforts are leading toward a certification from MSC, whose Fisheries Standard is the leading international standard for sustainable fishing and is used to assess if fisheries are well-managed and environmentally sustainable. With their mission to end overfishing, the organization is aiming to have over a third of the world’s wild-capture fisheries certified or engaged with the MSC program by 2030.

To achieve this, the program must be increasingly accessible to fisheries worldwide which face obstacles to achieving sustainability. As part of the MSC’s Pathway to Sustainability, the In-Transition to MSC (ITM) program supports these fisheries in their efforts to make their activities more sustainable. Through the program, fisheries benefit from MSC tools and expertise, providing a credible and accountable track to certification.

Yucatán’s octopus fishery joined the ITM program in 2021, aiming for completion in 2025. Roughly 4,000 metric tons produced in the area are represented by the ITM fishery, but the volume is growing since more fishermen are joining the project. This is a great example of a globally relevant species with local cultural and economic significance. Therefore, ensuring the fishery can continue to operate sustainability is critical as demand for octopus is increasing in traditional octopus markets. Only two certified octopus fisheries exist currently: one in Western Australia (561 mt) and one in North-West Spain (62 mt), although numbers fluctuate constantly.

“Initially the improvement project began with a focus on addressing environmental issues in the fishery, and in this new phase, monitoring of fishing quota and bait use will continue, but much of the effort will be concentrated on working to improve the governance of the fishery,” says Francisco Vergara, MSC Fisheries Outreach Manager for Mexico and Central America. “Workshops have begun along the Yucatan coast with fishermen, authorities, academics and NGOs to create spaces for dialogue to explore how to improve the management and surveillance of the fishery.”

To aid these initiatives, the MSC Ocean Stewardship Fund recently awarded $61,407 USD to the fishery to support continued work on improvements.

“While the fishery has yet to resolve several challenges in its transition to sustainability, it has given me great satisfaction to see first-hand how this project has grown and how it has generated long lasting improvements that benefit the coastal communities of this region of Mexico,” says Vergara.

Consumer awareness about sustainable choices has been steadily growing in recent years. By demonstrating that octopus can be consumed in a sustainable way, consumers are encouraged to make informed decisions when it comes to their seafood choices. This can create a ripple effect across the market, driving demand for sustainable seafood options and influencing other fisheries to adopt similar practices.

“The Maya octopus is prized for its flavor and texture,” says Edgar Chávez, executive chef of the Rosewood Mayakoba and a fierce proponent of using sustainably sourced seafood. “One of the traditional ways to cook it is al ajillo, which is one of my favorites. The delicious thing about this preparation is that it highlights the natural flavors of the octopus with garlic and other ingredients.”

Chávez, an ambassador for Pesca con Futuro, a Mexican organization dedicated to promoting sustainable seafood, offers his expert tips for cooking octopus succesfully at home:

  • Wash the octopus well and remove any residue.
  • If the octopus is fresh, it is recommended to freeze it beforehand to soften it.
  • In a large pot, boil water with salt. Immerse the octopus in boiling water for 30 seconds and remove it. Repeat this step three times. Then, leave the octopus in the boiling water and cook over medium heat for approximately 40-50 minutes, until tender. Drain and let the octopus cool. Cut it into pieces of desired size, depending on the recipe.

Once cooked, the octopus can be used in myriad preparations. These are some of Chávez’s favorite ways to prepare octopus:

  • Grilled octopus: After cooking the octopus, marinate the pieces in a mixture of olive oil, garlic, lemon, paprika and herbs. Grill until marked and slightly crispy.
  • Octopus ceviche: Cool the octopus and cut it into small pieces. Marinate in lime juice with onion, tomato, cilantro, avocado and chile serrano. Serve cold.
  • Pulpo a la gallega (Galician-style octopus): Slice the octopus and serve over cooked potato slices, sprinkled with paprika and coarse salt, and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil.
  • Octopus in its ink: Cook the octopus in its own ink with onion, garlic, tomato and white wine, to obtain a rich and dark stew. It is traditionally served with white rice.
  • Octopus tacos: Cook the octopus and roast it lightly. Serve in hot corn tortillas with guacamole, red onion, cilantro and hot sauce.

“These are just a few of the many ways to prepare Maya octopus, each highlighting its unique flavor and versatility in the kitchen,” says the chef. And by using Maya octopus from verified sustainable sources, chefs like Chávez are helping to ensure we can continue enjoying it for generations, securing the livelyhood of Yucatan’s coastal communities.

Pulpo al Ajillo

This recipe from chef Edgar Chávez is a popular and easy dish, traditionally prepared with fish, shrimp, or octopus.

1 Maya octopus ( 2-4 lbs.)

6-8 garlic cloves, finely chopped

2-3 guajillo chiles, sliced ​​(optional)

Olive oil, to taste

Salt and pepper, to taste

Fresh parsley, chopped (optional)

Fresh lime (optional)

Cook and chop the octopus as explained above. In a large frying pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the chopped garlic and guajillo chiles. Sauté until the garlic is golden, but not burnt. Add the octopus pieces and sauté for a few minutes until they are well coated with the garlic and chili oil. Adjust salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot, sprinkled with fresh chopped parsley and a few drops of lime juice, if desired.

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