Friday, December 17, 2010

On the Road - Maranhão (Pt. 13) - Eating Sawfish (Peixe Serra)

When in São Luís recently I had a meal at the central market, the Mercado da Praia Grande. In addition to stands selling fruits and vegetables, arts and crafts and local food products, the circular market boasts a number of small restaurants in its central core. The atrium of the market has a bandstand with live music, a number of plastic tables and chairs, and one can order a meal from any of the restaurant stalls. We visited about 2 pm on a very busy and lively Saturday afternoon, and the market was humming with activity. There was a local band playing forró, a traditional northeastern dance style of music, there was plenty of icy beer being served, and there was lots of food. Some people were there to drink beer and chat, some were there to dance, and some to eat a meal.

Among the many choices of restaurant, we picked one named Deco's at random, basically. On their menu they listed peixe serra, which in English means sawfish. I had never seen this fish on a menu before, and vaguely remembered the fish from picture books I had as a kid. Large, like a swordfish but with a serrated saw for a snout instead of a sword. I do like swordfish and so decided to try it. It came to the table in the form of steaks, fried, accompanied by rice, beans, spaghetti and a salad. It was delicious - the meat was flavorful and moist, and meaty. It reminded me very much of shark or swordfish. I thought it was a great meal, and the market a great experience.

It was only when I returned home to Fortaleza and did some research in preparation for this article that I realized, to my horror, that I'd committed an ecological crime by choosing saw fish for my lunch. I learned that the saw fish is, in fact, a type of ray, and that it is critically endangered. According to the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) the species is in danger of imminent extinction, and the only legal international trade in this fish involves live specimens being sent to aquaria for conservation purposes. There is no legal fishery in any country, including Brazil. Yikes! Suddenly that delicious fish steak in São Luís' market gained a much more sinister flavor, and what I learned tainted my memory of the meal. Certainly, the first saw fish meal I'd ever eaten would also be my last.

There's a moral to this tale, I think. Each of us is responsible for the choices we make when we look at a menu. Overfishing is a world-wide problem, and by eating fish from non-sustainable fisheries, we all become a part of that problem. I certainly couldn't choke down another piece of saw fish, ever. Although readers of this blog may never encounter sawfish on a menu, they've all now been advised. Don't eat it. And learn which fish are ecologically sound to eat. A good place to start is here.

(UPDATE 22DEC: It appears that this fish I ate in São Luís wasn't, in fact, the endangered sawfish. Click on the comments to this posting to read more about this. However, what I wrote above about the consumer's responsibility in choosing what species of fish to eat is still valid.)


  1. I have good news for you. I believe you did not eat an endangered sawfish. Instead, you had a "serra" Scomberomorus brasiliensis. This is a teleost fish, very important for coastal/artisanal fisheries in the region. I am pasting here two links from fishbase about this species (overall description and list of common names).

    Common names:

    Cheers, Vicente

  2. Thanks so much Vicente for the good news! I'm very relieved, and I think it must have been Scomberomorus brasiliensis that I ate in São Luís.


  3. Sometimes you hope is that way.
    I regret to announce you screwed up.
    Naaa... just kidding.

    Is, as Vicente said, a serra or Spanish mackarel, (Scomberomorus brasiliensis)
    as in your dish photo we can see clearly the oval slice, all meat around the central bone.
    Very common in the area and the sharky. swordwishy taste maybe was due to
    a) suggestion was a sawfish.. lol and b)indeed is a fleshy, oily fish, so it can be.
    Nice,nice blog indeed. Good luck and best of years !

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