CEO, Acari Fish
Acari Fish was born in May 2016 immediately after CEO Mike Mitchell finished his Fulbright fellowship studying small-scale fish farming in Tabasco, Mexico. During the fellowship, he had discovered that the true problem in rural fishing communities had nothing to do with fish farming, but rather, the much reviled ‘devil fish’ as local fishermen called it.
After asking around the local university and researching online, Mike realized that the ‘devil fish’ was actually the plecostomus or ‘armored catfish’, a common fish in household aquariums known for its voracious algae appetite. Based on well-known success stories where producers gave formerly discarded species like the orange roughy and Chilean sea bass makeovers, Mike asked, “Why can’t we do the same with this fish?”
And that’s exactly what Acari has done since 2016 — through a series of workshops, presentations and tasting events, Acari has worked to change the perception of the devil fish in Tabasco, one mouthful at a time. The team has implemented its first ‘module’ in the community of Simón Sarlat to process the fish. Through partnerships with chefs around Mexico, Acari began selling devil fish fillets, in turn providing a new source of employment to local fishermen. In the summer of 2017, the Acarí team began experimenting with fish jerky, and started selling small batches of its El Diablito jerky in the United States in November 2017.
Mike is originally from LA but considers the Bay Area to be his home. He is the co-founder and CEO of Acari Fish, a social enterprise based in the US and Mexico that works with rural fishermen to harvest and process the “devil fish” or armored catfish, an invasive fish from South America that has decimated freshwater fisheries. He got out of the Bay Area tech game back in 2012 and has since been working mostly in Central America and Mexico to create new economic opportunities for young people and rural fishermen.
How did you get into the industry?
As a Fulbright researcher in rural Tabasco, Mexico and later as a consultant with the UNDP in the same region, I came to learn of the severity of the “pez diablo” or devil fish problem in Mexico. I started digging around and realized that the fish was actually a menace around the world but no one had really done much to stop it. So that’s when I decided to start processing and selling the fish.
Any industry opportunities or challenges?
We’re an unfortunate victim of the Catfish Wars! It’s a long story but essentially what happened was Southern catfish farmers from places like Mississippi and Alabama tried to fight the flood of cheaper imports from places like Vietnam and China and lobbied to have the rules changed. Catfish is now regulated by the USDA (all other seafood falls under the FDA) and countries had to update their catfish polices to comply with the new regulations. Mexico has still not updated their policies, and as a result, we’ve unfortunately been blocked from bringing in our fish to the US for now. What’s worse is our fish is a distant relative of the fish involved in the Catfish Wars but since
they wrote the regulation so broadly, we’re included. This has forced us to spend much of the past year replicating the supply chain infrastructure we had in the US in Canada. We’ve also started working with fishermen in Florida to source for the American market. It’s an absurd trade war story that unfortunately slowed us down for a bit, but we’re still fighting and have finally worked around it.
Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?
I spent about a year with Acari just being a side hustle – we worked with these fishermen to process fillet that we sold to local restaurants. It’s a concept we’ve seen with plenty other invasive fish around the world. The lion fish and Asian silver carp are two good examples. But it wasn’t until I spent a week with Las Patronas in Veracruz, Mexico that the idea to make jerky came up. Las Patronas is this group of amazing women in rural Mexico that has been preparing food everyday for the past 20+ years to give to migrants riding La Bestia or The Beast, the series of cargo trains that many migrants take to go North. That’s when I started playing around with ways to preserve the fish just so we could help give these people a bit of variety in their diet and of course a snack that wouldn’t go bad during their journey. Once we tried our first batch I knew we were on to something.
How do you motivate others?
By highlighting my failures and imperfections. In this Instagram-fueled world, I think many people are fixated on this linear trajectory of success – most start-ups and entrepreneurs for example only highlight their triumphs and achievements. I prefer to talk more about the struggles we’ve had and the low points. It’s easy to see our successes, but I think it’s more inspirational to see that people and companies like us fail a lot too.
What do I do best?
My will – I’m not the smartest or most talented person, but I’ll keep fighting until I conquer whatever it is.
A Day in My Life:
What do you love most about Your City?
The diversity of people, foods and culture.
Favorite breakfast meal & restaurant?
It’s a toss up between dry ramen with different veggies topped with a fried egg and chicken fried steak.
What are you doing at:
6:00 AM – Getting up, reviewing email and going over the day’s work with the Mexico team.
10:00 AM – Finished the most urgent stuff of the day and heading to the gym
12:00 PM – Home for lunch and then out for meetings.
7:00 PM – Making dinner with my wife and catching up on our day
11:00 PM – Already asleep for a half hour.
What drink do you need to get through the day and at the end (and how many)?
Most used App/Favorite Instagram Account?
What should everyone try at least once?
Tacos al pastor in Mexico City.
Where do you enjoy getting lost?
Markets in Vietnam