Biodiversity, Environment, Europe, Headlines, Tierramerica

Culinary Traditions Exhausting Spain’s Fisheries

MÁLAGA, Spain, Oct 3 2010 (IPS) - “We have little boquerón (a type of anchovy), little jurel (scad), little salmon,” recites a server at a restaurant on the coast in Málaga, the southern Spanish city known for its “small fried fish.”

Tiny, immature fish.  Credit: Courtesy of Málaga Classroom of the Sea

Tiny, immature fish. Credit: Courtesy of Málaga Classroom of the Sea

The capture and sale of immature fish species is now prohibited here. The age-old practice has depleted the area’s fishing grounds.

The legal minimum sizes of fish, according to European Union Council Regulation No. 3760/92, of Dec. 20, 1992, is 20 centimetres for hake, 11 cm for sardines and red mullet, and nine cm for anchovies.

The Bay of Málaga, where Atlantic and Mediterranean waters mix, is a “natural fish nursery” in which many species reproduce, Juan Antonio López, head of marine resources for the Classroom of the Sea Environmental Education Centre, told Tierramérica. Capturing the young fish before they can reproduce decimates fish populations.

“The boquerón is losing the fight in the Mediterranean,” said López. Even though there is greater awareness about the problem today, “there is a culture that continues.”

According to Mónica Bermúdez, delegate in Málaga from the fishing council of the Andalusia autonomous community board, “the consumer is increasingly more aware, and buys fresh fish, but of the appropriate size.”

Málaga is a tourist city, home to thousands of families that make their livelihood from fishing, and is known for its tiny fried fish, she acknowledged, “but that doesn’t mean the restaurants are offering you immature fish.”

According to government figures, so far this year 2,169 kilograms of immature fish and shellfish have been confiscated, most coming from other cities.

There are still restaurants offering “chanquete” (Aphia minuta), or transparent goby, which has been under a fishing and sales ban in Andalusia since 1988. This species from the Atlantic and Mediterranean coast averages four or five cm in length at maturity and can only be caught with closely woven nets, which are illegal because they also trap young sardines and anchovies.

The ban was also an effort to prevent other immature fish from being sold in place of true chanquete.

Though less than before, there is still fishing for chanquete in the middle of the night, according to Guadalupe Cerdón, who has run a fish stand in Málaga’s Central Market for the last 15 years. She said the banned fish is sold in sacks on backstreets despite the threat of heavy fines.

Another vendor at the market told Tierramérica, “You make money with chanquete. Because of the economic crisis, many who lost their construction jobs are fishing.” He said a kilo of this fish could fetch about 20 euros (27 dollars).

“Some customers tell us they bought chanquete at the hairdresser’s. It’s all downhill,” said Antonio Burgos at the fish shop he has run for 30 years with his wife Mariló Pérez. She, in turn, blames the consumer and hopes that in the future “our grandchildren will be able to eat fish.”

In its “Threatened Species” report, published in January, the international marine conservation group, Oceana, warned that the commercial species of the Mediterranean face many dangers.

“Fifty-four percent of the stocks evaluated in the Mediterranean are beyond the biological safety limits,” according to an Oceana source, who added that the boquerón and the chanquete species should be included on the lists for protection agreements.

According to the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean, which met in Athens in April 2010, the stocks of sardines, boquerón, hake, mullet and red prawn are “over-exploited” or “fully exploited.”

A restaurant worker who asked not to be identified said that in Málaga small fish have been captured for as long as anyone can remember, “and that is why fishing is not going to end.”

Chanquete continues to be served “under the counter” to trusted customers, according to servers consulted in several Málaga restaurants.

The chanquetes are washed, coated in flour and fried in a good olive oil, and then served with lemon wedges. Other fish, like boquerón, are simply fried. A dish of chanquete goes for no less than 18 euros (24 dollars) in local restaurants.

Manuel Villafaina, president of the Beaches of Málaga Business Association and owner of a well-known restaurant, told Tierramérica that fishing for immature fish has been dramatically reduced and now represents “just two percent of the total” because people are more environmentally conscious, and businesses, like his, “adjusted to the law.”

To raise awareness among diners and chefs alike, Fish2fork is making its debut in October in Spain. Fish2fork provides an online guide that assesses restaurants based on the fish species served, information provided on the menu, and the fishing techniques utilised.

Fish2fork, which began in 2009 in Britain, and later in the United States, is an initiative of Charles Clover, author of the book “The End of the Line,” about the disappearance of life in the oceans, and of Tim Glover and Paul Eccleston, part of the MarViva Foundation.

The website, promoted in the documentary film “The End of the Line,” which premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, will include the evaluations of 75 Spanish restaurants in La Coruña, Barcelona, Bilbao, Madrid, Málaga, Palma de Mallorca and San Sebastián, Clemmie Mason, of Fish2fork in Britain, told Tierramérica.

“The idea is for people to understand that they have to give certain species some breathing room,” explained Daniel Rolleri, coordinator of MarViva in Europe. He noted the success so far in that British restaurants “have removed certain fish from their menus.”

Fish2fork created a list of species “to avoid” in restaurants, like the Cantabrian anchovy (boquerón), grouper and monkfish, which have a strong presence on menus in Spain.

Nevertheless, there are some holdouts: “I would not remove boquerón from my menu. It is typical of Málaga and the customers demand it,” said Jorge García, 15-year owner of his restaurant.

(*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

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