Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Puerto Lopez fish market

Puerto Lopez in Manabi is a fishy paradise. This dog-eared coastal town is home to the daily fish market. It's a shopping experience that leaves first-timers looking like the very fish being sold - that's wild-eyed and open-mouthed.
Horror fish at Puerto Lopez fish market, Ecuador
My face at the fish market
This is a world where antediluvian sea-life (that wouldn't look out of place hung from the ceiling of the Natural History Museum) sell straight from the boat for a few dollars; where teams of gnarled, knife-wielding gutters work tirelessly in the surf; and where you can barbecue the catch you've just bought in the vast open-air beach kitchen – and all this takes place without any respect for the encroaching tide.

From 5am each morning the fishing boats begin to arrive onto Puerto Lopez beach. By 6am it is already packed with a steady stream of fishermen bobbing offshore waiting patiently for their turn to unload.

Once a boat beaches itself – albeit ungainly and insecurely amid the buffeting waves - a rapid-response team from the beach sprints out to meet it. Several of the men make comic attempts to secure the boat with ropes while the rest balance large buckets on their shoulders, ready to collect the fish.

Puerto Lopez fish market
An entire industry ankle deep in the Pacific Ocean
The fishing boats are small and already look cramped – housing as they do about eight or ten fishermen. What is magical is the vast quantities of fish they contain, they must have hulls the depth of the Samaria Gorge to pack this much cargo.

The fishermen go to sea for two day stints, including a night in the ocean. Where do they sleep? The local fishermen we asked gave us a bemused look, uncertain the landlubbers weren't pulling his old sea leg: “On the boat of course.”

The rapid responders run to-and-fro through the surf like the most disappointing episode of Baywatch. Each man is bearing back-breaking loads of fish and, like Juggernaut, will trample to the foam all foolish enough to cross his irresistible course.

The scene is chaotic and the camera-clicking tourist should beware. It might all be taking place on a public beach but this is an industrial setting; there are fish hooks, lorries reversing, knives and buckets full of bloody guts – and that's without mentioning the creepy sea birds that look like pterodactyls (which I just spelled correctly at first attempt). In England you'd need a hard hat and high-viz jacket before they let you within fifty feet of this maelstrom.

Puerto Lopez fish market
Once the fish are unloaded the real trading begins. About two thirds of the catch are loaded straight onto lorries, vans or sorry-looking Chevrolet Sparks, who are wondering what they did to anger the motoring Gods to deserve this fate. This fish is destined for the packing plants, or bound for the bellies of highland Quito – where the only local fish is a type of anorexic trout. The fish is quickly boxed, packed in ice and driven away in a death cloud of black diesel smoke.

Now it's our turn. Except the canny local traders are already busy snapping up the best fish. There's no point competing with these chaps, they can eye a prize Corvina from 50 yards with a sharper eye than those terrifying pterodactyl birds (no spell check, twice on the trot).

The sellers place their fish on mats along the beach, inviting goggle-eyed tourists to inspect their wares (apparently, goggle-eyed tourists are their favourite customers). Clumsy Spanish, an English accent and not having a clue what fish is what or what's it's worth left me a slight disadvantage – but if I was getting ripped-off then it was the most pleasant scam I've been the victim of. For example, I paid eight dollars for a ten pound tuna (more about him later), five dollars for eight King Prawns the size of my head, five dollars for two purple fish of unknown vintage (an impulse buy), and the same again for a juicy corvina (sea bass). I managed to resist the temptation to pay two dollars for a squid who looked like he had only just given up a lucrative career in swallowing fishing boats whole – Cthulhu in a bucket.

I left the beach loaded with Neptune's treasures. To put it plainly, if my oil drum barbie was banking on a quiet night in front of the TV with a pizza and Strictly Come Dancing then it had another thing coming.

Once you've bought your fish you can take it to one of the gutting tables, there are about 30 operating furiously along the beach. It costs 50 cents per bag of fish. The gutters work ankle deep in the surf and are oblivious to the larger waves which sent me and the street dogs running for higher ground. The dogs mooch around desultorily, trying to look uninterested and innocuous; except they fail miserably and manage to look very interested and deeply suspicious.

Puerto Lopez fish market
Perfectly innocent... just soaking some rays... I don't even like fish
I was cradling my bag of precious fish like Gollum, but most of the locals take their catch straight to the smoking barbecues and spitting pans of the vast open-air kitchen, operating just metres from the sea. The cooks will serve you your fish, rice and plantain at a table in sight of the same boat that landed the catch. The local men were more engrossed in their tabloid newspapers, which are packed with more nudey girls than even the Sport would consider tasteful.

My cradled bag of fish would betray me with great embarrassment on the bus home. As I was teetering gingerly towards the front, in preparation for the military, rolling disembarking the drivers favour, a particularly tight corner sent my bag swinging over the head of a family of four. I hope it was only brine that leaked from withing, either way they all received a fishy shower that morning. My shame was so great I got off a stop early and walked.

Back to the ten pound tuna. That evening I barbecued it and - with a only little help from Lucy – managed to eat half a fish. That's five pounds of flesh we consumed. Granted some of its total weight included head, brains, bone and blood (most of which we'd dripped around the sparkling white floor of SuperMaxi only realising at the checkout we'd just drawn a grisly Hansel and Gretel route map of our shop – it was “Clean up team to aisle four please... and aisle five, six, seven and ten.”)

With some rude maths, I figured I'd probably eaten three pounds of tuna fish (not to mention the four plantain and cheese bolons, a generous tomato quinua salad, oh and the six bottles of Pilsner). Most people won't know this, but three pounds of tuna does not a comfortable digestion aid. I felt a bit like my old dog Jack after he broke into the fridge and ate two packs of butter, an uncooked chicken, six cherry yoghurts and an entire block of cheddar cheese – shrink-wrap and all. I could have wept, and if I had it would been with tuna-tinged tears. As I write, there are another five pounds of tuna wrapped in tin foil in the fridge like some shameful crime.

Puerto Lopez fish market
Pick a tuna

Tuna on a barbecue
Ten pounds of tuna feeling the heat
Puerto Lopez fish market is a refreshing example of just letting people get on with it. Proof that if you allow thousands of people to converge in a heady cocktail of trucks, guts, hooks, boats, ropes, dogs, knives, barbecues and pteradactyls (bugger) almost nobody will die... and if they do the tide will simply wash the bodies away, along with all the fish guts.

We've been going to the fish market a few times a week and there's always something new to see. However, when we went today it was clearly a special day. As we approached there was a strange atmosphere, a nervous excitement crackled in the air like static electricity. When we reached the fishing boats, which were beached further out than usual, it was obvious what was fueling the atmosphere.

Every boat contained about four or five enormous sharks. It was a shocking sight up close; their great tail fins; their uncanny smiles; and their terrifying jaws (even dead). The size of the fish was astonishing, perhaps twelve feet long and two hundred pounds. The sharks were being butchered on the beach and the blood ran like streams to the sea. When they sliced open the stomachs, fish the size of the enormous tuna I'd bought last week slithered out, barely digested. But all eyes were on the shark meat.

It seemed a tragedy that so many (perhaps 100) of these impressive creatures were dead on the beach. Lucy got upset at the sight.

The sharks are known locally as rabones. In English they're known as threshing sharks and are most easily identified by their enormous tails. A local fisherman told us how happy he was with the catch. “You could support a family for a week with one of these fish?” Lucy asked.

“No,” he said. “For a month.”

Each fish would sell at market for between $300 - $400. Not a bad day's work when you're unloading five fresh rabones from the ice. It's little wonder Puerto Lopez beach was buzzing with so much nervous excitement. There was going to be plenty of Cana Manabita drunk that day.

Thresher shark, otherwise known as rabones

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