ECUADOR: Manta, the World Capital of Tuna

  • by Gonzalo Ortiz (manta, ecuador)
  • Tuesday, December 28, 2010
  • Inter Press Service

'Manta lives off fishing,' architect Teddy Andrade, the city government's director of urban planning, told IPS. 'It has the largest fishing fleet in South America, the highest percentage of unloading is carried out here, and the largest quantity of seafood products are processed here.'

'We must not forget about other industries, like vegetable oils and tagua (ivory-nut palms, which produce vegetable ivory, used mainly for buttons),' he said.

But the city's main asset, according to Andrade and local politicians, is its strategic position.

Manta is located on one of the most westernmost points of mainland South America, and has a natural deep-water port and a first-rate international airport, where a U.S. air base operated for a decade, until 2009.

With a population of 260,000, Manta proclaims itself 'the world capital of tuna' In one of the gazebos on the waterfront drive there is even a monument with sculptures of a yellow fin tuna (Thunnus albacares) and a tin can.

According to official figures, Ecuador takes the largest tuna catch in the eastern Pacific, followed by Mexico. In the first seven months of this year, this country exported 105,000 tonnes of canned tuna. The record year was 2008, when exports of canned tuna totalled 815 million dollars.

That figure dropped to 632 million in 2009. To that were added 74 million dollars in exports of fish meal and 173 million dollars in exports of other seafood products.

Most of that activity was concentrated in Manta, while the city of Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest port, is the leader in aquaculture (shrimp and prawns).

Ensuring traceability

Little fish is consumed in Ecuador despite the diversity of fauna in its ocean waters, which are home to between 1,500 and 1,700 species of bony fish, including more than 100 kinds of sharks.

Annual per capita consumption is six to seven kgs, compared to a Latin American average of 15 to 16, said biologist Jimmy Martínez, a technical adviser at the Under-Secretariat of Fishing Resources, whose main offices are based in Manta.

'That's why it's very important for the government's food security programme to insist on the direct human consumption of fish, which is healthier and more nutritional than beef or chicken,' he said.

The government's task, besides oversight, regulation, health controls and the provision of services, 'is to guarantee that demand will always exist,' Martínez said. 'For that reason, national consumption must be encouraged, while our markets in Europe, Asia and North America must be secured.'

'Those regions are demanding that our countries certify our fisheries. That is, we need to demonstrate that our seafood is ocean-friendly,' he said. Research and control plans have been launched to that end.

'Ecuador is a world leader in shark management and the indefinite ban on fishing for manta rays has bolstered that leadership position,' Under-Secretary of Fishing Resources Maricela Zambrano told IPS.

Two international workshops have been held in Ecuador, where experts from 16 countries have prepared Ecuadoreans to train people in shark management, she pointed out.

'Measures like banning the catch of immature specimens, for example, are being strictly enforced,' Martínez said.

'There will always be people who try to get around the rules, but we have steadily improved the traceability of the product. In sharks, for example, we know who captured a shark whose fin was exported, as well as when and where it was caught,' he said.

Day to day

Under the lights of Manta's busy, modern fishing terminal, veteran exporters can be seen standing next to the boats that have just come in with their catch, calling Tokyo or Miami, Florida by cell phone to arrange a shipment of fresh tuna for sushi.

It's a complex operation, because after they are cleaned, the headless tuna must be packed in insulated polystyrene boxes lined with polythene sheets and filled with gel ice, where they are preserved for three or four days at a temperature no higher than four degrees Celsius.

'These boxes have to be in the airport at 4:00 in the morning,' Omar Díaz explains to IPS, setting aside his cell phone for a moment. 'The plane will land in Miami at 9:00, at 11:00 they will be at the broker's, and probably by 3:00 in the afternoon they'll be in the restaurant or supermarket.'

Meanwhile, 1,500-ton ships with installations for freezing tuna at 60 degrees below Celsius are arriving in the port.

'At that temperature, the tuna still conserves all of its organoleptic properties, which means that weeks later, when the fish is thawed, the consumer in Japan, South Korea or China will be able to appreciate its full flavour, odour and texture,' Martínez told IPS.

A couple of kilometres from the fishing port, on Tarqui beach, under an unusual drizzle, Edison Chica is waiting for buyers for an enormous blue marlin (Makaira mazara) that he has purchased from small-scale fishermen for 450 dollars. 'It weighs around three quintals (300 kgs),' he says.

A fish cleaner has shown up and gutted the blue marlin right there on the beach for free, in exchange for the viscera and head, which he carries off to a truck that buys fish waste per kilo for a fish meal factory.

Hundreds of small trucks are lined up at the water line, ready to take off for markets in the interior of Manabí, the province where Manta is located, or more distant markets in the Andean highlands.

Edison tells IPS that he has bought and sold fish in the same spot for 30 of his 40 years of life. He hopes to sell the blue marlin 'for 480, or if I'm lucky, 500 dollars,' to a trader from Portoviejo, the provincial capital, which is not on the sea.

The government has chosen Manta as the site of a new petrochemical complex and oil refinery, to be built 18 km south of the city, at a cost of over 10 billion dollars. The studies for the project are moving along, most of the land where the refinery will go up has been acquired, and the road to the site is under construction.

'In 20 years the population of the city will double in size, and we have to get ready for that,' Andrade said.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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