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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Shrimping in Puerto Peñasco

By Charlie & Leticia Luse


“Shrimp Boats are a comin’, their sails are in sight,
Shrimp Boats are a comin’, there’s dancing tonight.”
So goes the song, which perfectly fits Puerto Peñasco, a very important port for production of shrimp, beautiful beaches and tourism. The shrimp season—the period of time the boats are permitted to “harvest” shrimp—is set by law from September through March, a period of seven months. There are between 108 and 118 shrimp boats in Puerto of various size—but most are approximately 185 feet in length. Each is powered by a large diesel engine with a second smaller engine for electricity. A normal crew consists of the captain, a mechanic, a cook and three workers. At times, there may be an additional two or three young men on board as apprentices, called “turkeys”.

The boats go out on the high seas for between 30 to 40 days at a time and go out great distances from shore, to the Bay of Kino, Guaymas, Mazatlan, and other locations. The captain has his own quarters, and below the wheel house is a room with bunk beds, a small dining area, a kitchen with refrigerator, and a restroom. On the rear deck are the hoists for the nets, a tank to rapidly freeze the shrimp, an opening down to the large freezer and a room for ice. The shrimp nets are hoisted up and the shrimp dumped on the deck, where they are washed clean of sand and acidity. They are “de-headed” by simply twisting off the heads, and then placed in the freeze tank. The tank has a solution of salt and water with freeze coils. Within approximately 15 minutes, the shrimp are frozen, and this process also keeps them from sticking together. Once frozen, they are placed in large bags and taken to the freezer below deck.

The first month of the season is best for quantity of catch, and a boat can return with as much as 25,000 pounds of shrimp. Each month, the amount of the catch decreases until during the last month of March, when the crew may only catch 1,000 to 1,500 pounds. It is during the last months that some of the boats go out only at night, and only for about 50 miles. They may not dock for 15-30 days, as they return each morning and anchor off the Malecon ( The Point ) coast of Puerto, and can be seen with their nets extended to be dried and repaired. There is a strip along the Malecon shore line that has several places where shrimp and fish are sold. You do not see frozen shrimp here, so you may assume they all are fresh—but the only time the shrimp are actually fresh—that is, they have not been frozen—is when you can see the boats anchored off the shore. Because they return each morning, they can keep some of the catch on ice, and small boats go out to buy the fresh catch to sell in these market places. There is no guarantee that the shrimp you buy are fresh, but this is the only time it is even possible. All those we spoke to in the business insist that there is no difference in quality or flavor between fresh or prior-frozen shrimp. For the jumbo shrimp, it only takes 10 to 12 of them to make one pound, with the smaller the size, the more per pound. When the shrimp season ends, the boats continue to go out for fish.

Once back in port, the frozen shrimp are brought up from the freezer by hoist in large plastic containers, then by a hoist on the dock to be loaded onto trucks and taken to one of the two processing plants in Puerto. The processing plant we visited is owned by Mr. Angel Alberto Lizarraga Sotelo, and we were warmly received by him and his son, Angel Alberto Lizarraga Ruiz, the administrator, and his wife, Mary Lizarraga. The shrimp arrive in a half-frozen state, are placed in large tanks of water to thaw, and are washed twice to eliminate the characteristic acidity of shrimp. Depending on the amount of shrimp to process, they may use a mechanical device with a conveyor to move the shrimp over another device that separates them by size. The processing then continues by hand. The day we were there, the incoming load was not large enough to use the mechanical device, so the entire sorting process was being done by hand. From the thawing and cleaning tanks, the shrimp were dumped onto large, stainless steel tables where they were sorted by size and color and placed in plastic trays with large cellophane sheets on the bottom. We need to mention here that there are two main colors of shrimp—white and brown. We asked Angel and two of his lead workers which color they preferred, and they all said brown—but they all insisted that the flavor does not differ between the colors. The trays are next weighed so each has five pounds. The trays are then taken to another table where the shrimp are removed to ascertain that the count is correct, then are replaced, with the cellophane brought up over the top, and placed on a rack where purified water is poured into each tray in preparation for two phases of freezing. Once frozen, the five-pound cellophane packages are placed in boxes, then placed in a larger box for shipping and returned to a large walk-in freezer for storage. Shipments go to many United States locations, and even to Japan.

The processing plant is strictly for shrimp; therefore, during the five months when harvesting shrimp is prohibited, the plant shuts down. Two interesting things we were told about shrimp: the first is that the freezing, thawing, freezing process, which can be repeated again, does not harm the quality or flavor of the shrimp and it would not be possible to tell the difference by looking at them, or when cooking them to be consumed. The second is that once the shrimp are frozen, they can be kept for up to two years without harm to the product.

We want to thank all those who took time to talk to us about the shrimp business in Puerto Peñasco. In addition to those at the processing plant, Mr. Gabriel Ledezma Ochoa, who has 20 years of fishing experience, enlightened us with his knowledge. Next time you are in Puerto, visit the Malecon (The Point ), where you will find shrimp in the fish markets along the shore, and if it’s the right time of year, you can see the shrimp boats anchored offshore.