In parts of rural Mexico, the invasive diablo – devil – fish, a brown, ugly creature with spines, had all but blotted out the bottom of creeks, rivers and wading pools.
The fish choked off native species like mojarra, which is popular on dinner tables, and made it all but impossible for Mexican fisherman to make their livings. Every time they put their nets into the water, they’d pull out dozens of diablo fish, and maybe one or two mojarra.
Despite government-sponsored marketing campaigns, no one wanted to eat the strange bottom-feeding fish with a hard shell, whose flesh turns pale grey when sautéed. Hundreds of pounds of diablo fish caught each day were going to waste.
Mike Mitchell, 30, who is graduating this month from UC Berkeley with a master’s degree in international development, saw all this during time he spent in Mexico on a Fulbright scholarship. And he knew the diablo fish presented a golden opportunity.
Now he and fellow graduating student Sam Bordia, 29, have launched an audacious plan to make the diablo fish the world’s next source of affordable protein and create a new market that will pay fishermen and help control the spread of the diablo fish.
Their idea? Fish jerky. Mitchell and Bordia’s new company, Acari, will soon be marketing it to techies in Silicon Valley. And fresh diablo fish burgers could soon be on the menu in Bay Area restaurants, where chefs – and diners — are drawn by the fish’s meaningful back story.
“We want create a whole new export economy in southern Mexico around this fish,” Mitchell said during an interview in Wellman Hall, where he’s spent two years kicking around the problem of the diablo fish while studying the ins and outs of international economic development.
Still, their success is far from certain: Bordia and Mitchell have yet to make their jerky at a commercial scale, and a fish distributor in the Bay Area is trying to sell their first ton of fresh diablo fish fillets.
The pair estimate they’ve put between $20,000 and $30,000 of their own money into the project, including $5,000 in April for a jerky factory to develop a commercial prototype, which will be ready in five to eight weeks. They both plan to devote their summer to Acari.
Mitchell said he’s been a “fish guy” since he was a child growing up near San Diego, always drawn to aquariums and bodies of water. He worked for a few years as a marketing writer for a sustainable fish company after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in marketing and environmental consulting.
By his mid 20s, Mitchell was on a State Department-sponsored Fulbright scholarship in Mexico when he first started to figure out a solution to the diablo fish, which had made it to Mexico from its native Brazil and was — wrongly – considered to be poisonous or inedible by both fishermen and chefs.
“I started thinking: what can I do about this?” Mitchell said. “How do we eradicate it, what can be done with it?”
Mitchell was able to convince Lupita Vidal, the chef and co-owner of La Cevichería Tabasco, a restaurant in the Mexican city of Villahermosa, to put diablo fish on the menu. That proved to be a turning point.
“People love going out into these communities and telling these people to eat the fish, when they wouldn’t eat it themselves,” Mitchell said. “She put it on her menu; that’s a big deal.”
Soon a chef at Google’s Mexico City campus was interested in experimenting with the fish, which tends to pick up the flavor of the food around it.
Mitchell then started playing around with a jerky, wondering if he could preserve the protein and, with the group Las Patronas, feed it to Central American migrants traveling through Mexico. He found that when it was made into jerky, the fish tasted more like beef than something pungent like salmon or tuna.
“That’s when I realized if we could find a way to make this jerky in mass, this could really work,” he said.
But the Fulbright ended and Mitchell started in UC Berkeley’s two-year master’s of development practice program, where he met Bordia, who brought business and shipping experience to the company. (Bordia said Mitchell was the guy in class “who was always yapping about fish.”)
The pair intend to devote their summer to Acari, with Bordia staying in Berkeley and working on packaging and sales and Mitchell traveling to Mexico to work on growing production, sales and shipping logistics.
They hope to have their fish caught by local Mexican fishermen, processed nearby by migrants, and shipped to big cities in Mexico and the United States to be turned into fillets or jerky. The final destinations, they hope, will be the cafeterias of big-name tech companies, an online store and, eventually, supermarket and gas station snack shelves.
Both credit UC Berkeley with giving them the skills and savvy to find a creative solution to an invasive species.
“I felt like the focus here is a lot more open, compared to East Coast schools,” Mitchell said. “There is more of an emphasis here on being an independent thinker, on doing your own thing.”
Contact Will Kane at firstname.lastname@example.org