Eevery morning, hundreds of small white fishing boats dot the dark blue waters of Veracruz’s coastline on the Gulf of Mexico. Most of the crews, many of them families who have been fishing for generations, employ traditional methods – using nets to catch large numbers of fish, which then slowly suffocate once out of the water.
But a few of the anglers are doing something different, using a technique that originated in Japan centuries ago. It is a method of killing fish that emulates a process called like Jim, which is based on a simple scientific principle: the less the fish is traumatized, the longer its flesh remains fresh.
Ike Jime starts before the fish is even out of the water. It relies on handling, temperature and hygiene – three factors that are usually overlooked. The fish are selectively caught with hooks, not nets, and are always taken out of the water alive so they can be discarded if they are not big enough.
Once the fish has been caught, a small knife is traditionally used to quickly separate the brain from the spinal cord. Once paralyzed, the fish is placed in ice water so that 80-90% of its blood is flushed out of its body. Experts say this is the most important step because it’s the blood that contains the notoriously fishy taste that contributes to a short shelf life.
The Veracruz men who began using techniques influenced by ike jime are part of the Nuestra Pesca project, an artisanal fishing collective started by a chef, Erik Guerrero. In 2015, Guerrero left his position as executive chef at a famous restaurant in Mexico City, Pujol, to return to his home country and open his own restaurant. But when he realized that the quality of seafood he was getting didn’t stay fresh for more than two days, he began to research how he could acquire and distribute it himself.
Unlike large-scale industrial fishing, which prioritizes quantity over quality, ike jime is a manual process that takes time and requires a small fishing operation. While Veracruz fishermen once trapped fish in large nets, those working with Nuestra Pesca now catch fewer fish and use very sharp wire – a tool adopted in place of the traditional knife – to inspect each fish. If he meets Nuestra Pesca standards, they mimic ike jime by making a quick incision under his fins to begin draining his blood.
Using ike jime also means that, compared to industrial fishing, Guerrero’s team reduces the number of fish they catch. They apply many of the same principles of the farm-to-table movement, consuming only seasonal fish and avoiding the larger, superior species – sharks, marlins, swordfish and others – that keep ocean ecosystems in balance.
Encouraging traditional fishing communities to move from a model that promotes mass production to one that only takes what is necessary has not been easy.
“Fishermen weren’t used to doing it this way,” says Guerrero, who started out with just one boat and now manages more than 100 men. He had to convince everyone to make the switch and prove to them the value of ike jime – something that doesn’t happen overnight “when you have three or four generations that have done something a certain way”.
He says he feels for his crews, pointing to the frustration felt by many going from netting to hooking. Once used to catching dozens of fish at the same time, they only catch one or two fish in 12 hours.
“It just wouldn’t work if the product wasn’t amazing,” he says.
It is also the quality of the fish that keeps Nuestra Pesca in business since they can charge more for a kilo of ike jime fish than for the catch with their old methods.
To assess the long-term effects of such a change in fishing methods, Nuestra Pesca teamed up with scientists from the Institute of Fisheries and Marine Sciences at the University of Veracruz. “It’s not the only place in the world that does this, but it’s a great case study,” says Dr. Leo Ortiz-Lozano, one of the researchers, who specializes in coastal zone management and conservation. .
Before Nuestra Pesca, he was unaware that ike jime was performed on fish, other than tuna, outside of Japan. Today, he is passionate about his adaptation to Mexico: “It’s really our favorite project.
Ortiz-Lozano appreciates how being more fish-friendly changes resource use. Everything is connected, he says.
“Fish are not normally considered in animal rights frameworks, but it shows respect for the individual,” he says. “If the fishermen are doing well, then the environment is doing well, and so are the consumers.”