TUMBES, Peru – Living under the thick mud of the Tumbes mangrove swamp, a protected natural area on Peru’s border with Ecuador, are the black conchs and red crayfish that are two increasingly rare delicacies of Peruvian cuisine, thanks to the great demand for these prized dishes.
As if this were a case of digging for truffles, the gatherers slop through the mud at low tide and feel around under the wet mud for hours until they find their prey, a job that gets them up to their necks in water so others can dine on these delicacies.
Though the mud comes up to their knees, they do everything possible to find where these mollusks and crustaceans are hiding amid an overwhelmingly chaotic mesh of roots, which emerge at low tide in the labyrinth of canals that make up the mangrove swamp.
This demanding work is handed down from fathers to sons, all members of two gatherers’ associations formed after the Tumbes mangrove swamps were declared a “national sanctuary” in 1988 to fend off the deforestation that had already reduced the breeding ground of crayfish from 24,700 acres (10,000 hectares) to 7,338 acres in just a few years.
The nature reserve is a mangrove forest, whose shrubs or small trees put down solid roots in soil that is flooded by rising tides and sustains a great biodiversity of fish and birds.
Conch hunter Julio Cesar Cerro, president of the Traditional Extractors of Hydrobiological Resources Association, or Asextri, told EFE that production has dropped severely despite closed seasons and a limit on the daily harvest in the case of crayfish.
His colleague Eugenio has been gathering black conchs for 45 years, an occupation he began when only 18, and told EFE that when the mangrove forest was larger he could harvest between 800 and 1,000 conchs a day, but now he’s lucky to get 100 of the mollusks in five hours of hard work.
Those 100 conchs, which must have a minimum size of 1 3/4 inches (4.5 centimeters) in diameter, are sold for 40 soles (some $12) to middlemen, so the price for the consumer can be has much as 80 soles (about $24), conch fisher Francisco Miranda, who has practiced the trade for 22 years, told EFE.
But the price goes through the roof in big cities like Lima and Cuzco, located thousands of miles away, since the mangrove forest of Tumbes is practically the only place in the country that produces these mollusks that must arrive fresh to the restaurants that serve them.