In Cuba, Not Everyone Loves This Catfish

The Colibri restaurant in Playa Larga is one of the few establishments to have claria on its menu.

Article and photos by Suswana Chowdhury

Niruys Higueras, who owns a popular private restaurant in Havana, El Atelier, scrunched her nose at the mention of claria, saying she “doesn’t like the taste or the smell.” But not too far from her, at La Paila, another private restaurant, chef Ugo Chigon  smiled and said this catfish species is “really good and in high demand,” despite its physical appearance—eel-like, usually dark gray or black on the back, a white belly and whiskers.

Claria, an invasive species native to Africa and now spread to the Middle East, is a source of controversy for Cubans. Many Cubans disdain claria; some enjoy it. It shows up on the menus of some private restaurants catering to tourists such as La Paila and Colibri, in Playa Larga, adjacent to Zapata National Park.

Claria, an invasive species of catfish that divides opinion in Cuba (Photo by Wikimedia Commons).

The species was introduced to Cuban waters in 1999 by the government, hoping to add a new food source after the food shortage crisis of the Special Period, which began in 1991 when the collapse of the Soviet Union led to Cuba losing its main benefactor and supplier.

Known for devouring anything that crosses its path, claria has taken over both rural and urban waters, threatening native species, particularly the Cuban gar, which is currently on the endangered species list. It often frequents sewers and ditches, which turns off many people in terms of thinking of it as an edible fish.

Dr. Silvia Patrica Gonzalez Diaz said a claria one foot long is capable of eating a yard-long gar, a long slender fish.

Dr. Silvia Patrica Gonzalez Diaz explains how claria are preying on the Cuban gar, a fish on the endangered species list.

Even environmentalists dislike it. Esther Veliz Diaz of the Fundancion Antonio Nuñez Jimenez, a think tank on environmental issues, laughed at the notion of claria being “delicious.”

As claria continues to prey on and diminish the Cuban gar population, Cuba is seeking ways to bolster the endangered species by reintroducing gar eggs into local waters. Nothing effective has yet been found to reduce the number of claria.

Esther Veliz Diaz said, “It’s very difficult” to control the claria population “without also endangering other species too.” Ideas of poisoning them might have drastic repercussion on other aquatic species.

Food shortages have been a critical issue for the state since the Special Period. Although the economy has recovered, Cuba still imports 60 to 65 percent of the food it consumes, so producing more food and importing less is a top priority for the state.

Whether claria will emerge as a popular food source remains to be seen.