Artisanal fishing, where one or more individuals push a boat out into the ocean and spend the day fishing, then land and sell their catch, is a grueling existence. The sea can be dangerous, and yet there’s no pay if there are no fish. Fishing communities in Ecuador, like those in Peru, tend to be pretty humble places. We drove through the town of Valdivia on a Saturday and the boats had just come in, for there were fish on cutting tables right beside the street and people would pull up, roll down their window and buy fish on the spot.
There are huge fishing fleets. The smallest boats we saw were in Valdivia and Ancon, with larger boats in Anconito. All of these are the very smallest of the fishing fleets. Boats under repair are parked anywhere space can be found, including in the plaza by the museum in Valdivia. There’s not much room for boats to be parked among the fishermen’s houses along the shore.We went to the regional fish market in La Libertad, closer to us in Ballenita than driving to Valdivia and hoping the boats were in. This is among the largest fish markets we’ve been in, rivaling the fish on the Rialto in Venice (I’m sure it’s bigger). Sunday is the busiest day, and there were lobster in addition to all the fish and shellfish we saw on visits during the week. About ten varieties of shrimp are sold here, from huge tiger prawns to tiny peeled shrimp. In addition are octopus and a range of clams, mussels and scallops, along with a species that I’ve seen beachcombing, but never eaten. There are huge fish, too, mahi mahi and tuna that can be six feet long. All these fish are cleaned, scaled, skinned, filleted or cut into steaks according to the buyer’s requests. The floor is wet from the water used to sluice off the countertops.Outside the fish market is the market for fruits, vegetables and household goods. We were there around 9 am on Sunday, and found that lots of people visit the market and stop for a breakfast of fried fish. Smoke from the open fires used for grilling drifts out over the alley.We were impressed by the quantity of shrimp at the market and found that Ecuador is one of the world’s largest exporters of shrimp along with Thailand, Vietnam, and China. Shrimp farms cover low ground near the ocean all along the coast. We found a vantage point near Playa Santa Rosa where we could see the ponds fanning out across the horizon. The good result for consumers is that at the market, shrimp cost $3-$6 a pound. More good news is that to compete internationally, Ecuadorean shrimp farms are phasing out all chemicals. This gives their product an edge over Asian growers, at least for now. We ate shrimp for dinner almost every night.