Almadraba: thirty centuries of sustainability

Screenshot from a video by Dani García

Brilliant article on Almadraba and tuna sustainability by Fernando Huidobro, the president of Andalucia gastronomy and tourism academy, who has kindly permitted me to translate it from Spanish and repost it. Some food for thought for all of us.

By Fernando Huidobro

No matter how many meanings the word “sustainable” may have today, the traditional trap net or ALMADRABA – gear for fishing Atlantic bluefin tuna – includes every single one because of an undeniable, stubborn and unquestionable fact: for the last 30 centuries or so during which the almadraba has been used it has sustained the world’s tuna population without contributing to the current savage, indiscriminate depletion of the species by overfishing.

The real cause of the overfishing that is putting the survival of thunnus thynnus at risk is the uncontrolled use of abusive fishing gear such as the pelagic longline and, above all, the purse seine net.

This fact is recognised by both the World Nature Forum (WWF/Adena) – especially in its 2003, 2006 and 2008 annual reports – and the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), even though the latter committed the serious blunder, in its inadequate and mistaken November 1996 Management Plan, of keeping the purse seine season open and setting far higher catch limits during the breeding season than those recommended by scientists and ecologists.

The foregoing would be obvious to anyone with half a brain who is minimally aware or informed on the subject or who simply reads the reasons and arguments set forth below and provide a brief, clear, objective compendium of these causes: A DIGEST OF THE ALMADRABA’s SUSTAINABILITY.

History of the almadraba

 This gear dates back approximately three thousand years. During the 7th century B.C. the Phoenicians traded throughout the Mediterranean Sea (medi: middle; terra: earth – sea in the middle of the world) in products (salted fish) derived from tuna and other species. Their origin is clearly evident: Gadir/Gadeira (the Bay of Cadiz) from Gibraltar to Cape San Vicente. Anacreon, Hippocrates and Strabo mention it, as does Timaeus. The Romans struck a coin called the Gadir that had a bas-relief of two tuna fish on the obverse. There can be little doubt that the almadraba is an ancestral fishing method with thousands of years of history.

Historical rights of the Almadraba

 Regulation of the rights connected with this kind of fishing also goes back several centuries, although the first judicial documentary references to come down to us are from the Hispano-Arabic period (14th century) and give the method its name: ar.madraba.

Subsequently, the Spanish government regulated the concession of privileges and monopolies for fishing, tax collection and leasing of fisheries, lawsuits, private rights, conflicts, contracts and democratic political measures, etc. The regulatory legislation is extensive, varied and well-documented. The Royal Decree of 1817 finally abolished all aristocratic privilege and granted concessions, through public tender, to the fishermen’s guilds (Consorcio Nacional del Almadrabero) of the eastern and western Mediterranean coasts. It also established the first regulations governing fishing, the forerunners of the strict regulations in force in Spain today such as the Fisheries Act of 29 October 2008.

The universal judicial principle prior in tempore, potior in iure (first in time, strongest in law) should be applied, and we Iberians were the first in Mare Nostrum to fish for tuna as described by the Greek poet Oppian in the second century A.D.

A people’s historic rights cannot be ignored and those of the southern Atlantic coast of Spain should demand respect for the exercise of their rights to set up almadrabas to catch bluefin tuna.

Cultural heritage and way of life in the almadraba villages

 The almadraba is not only an artisanal fishing technique. It is also a way of life for people and a livelihood for the many families who live by it and an important source of employment not only directly in the fishing itself but also in the auxiliary salting and canning industries. It has exceptional social importance and determines the cultural, historical and heritage-related identity of Western Andalusia.

Viewing documentary recordings made by RTVE (NODO) ​​back in the sixties of the last century suffices to realize the ancestral customs that surround the almadraba, its importance and its meaning, all of which can be studied in books and documents and seen at first hand by visiting the remains of almadraba sites such as El Terrón or Sancti Petri.

For those whose livelihood depends on it, the Almadraba is a religion the only commandment of which is very simple: thou shalt love tuna above all else.

Traditional, artisanal manual fishing

The almadraba is a labyrinthine system of nets by means of which tuna are cornered and trapped. The nets are anchored to the coastal seabed to form various shapes (each with its own name) and also to a fixed base ashore. Made up of visible points that serve as obligatory markings and signals, they must also be set up at a minimum and maximum distance from the coastline.

The fishing gear is comprised exclusively of nets, anchors, ropes and boats, the design of which has changed little over the centuries. It also depends on the weather, the skilled hands and astuteness of the fishermen and, of course, a smidgeon of good luck. Nothing else. The most advanced technology found here is the equipment worn by the divers who sound the alert as the fish enter the net.

Seasonal System

The traps are only installed during the season when the schools of bluefin tuna move through the Straits of Gibraltar from the Atlantic Ocean on their annual migration, in late spring, on their way to the inner Mediterranean after the frenzy of their mating rituals. The May moon marks the most intense moment of this transit.

Today, since the advent of industrial purse-seine fishing, no tunas have been caught in the return or inverse traps which traditionally caught the fish as they returned from the Mediterranean in the same place at the end of summer, on their way to the open Atlantic after reproducing.

The almadraba system does not alter the tuna’s natural routes nor changes their habits or life cycle and does not interfere with their habitat, growth or later reproduction, thus enabling the preservation and health of the species. It entails an annual closed season: a mandatory, cyclical and permanent biological moratorium.

Natural selective fishing

Fishing by almadraba implies a sort of natural selection of the specimens that are caught. No provocation, driving or attraction is possible with tuna. Not even lures or deception are used, which means that those caught in the nets are trapped purely by chance since only a very small percentage of the fish in the school stray randomly towards the coast. In fact, it has proven to be a sort of natural self-regulation. The numbers of fish caught in almadraba has fallen by 80% since 2000.

It all depends on the currents, tides and lunar phases and wind direction, southwest being the most beneficial. The water conditions are also a key factor: salinity, transparency or turbidity and temperature.

For these reasons, since times immemorial the almadraba people have considered the catch as a tribute to the sea: respectful, once again, with the ebb and flow of their existence that is marked by chance and the natural order of things.

Regulated, controlled capture

The almadraba system enables easy control by the authorities due to its inescapable condition of being connected to land and always located in the same place and due to the need and obligation of having the required administrative permits for setting up and anchoring the nets. It is impossible to escape the surveillance of strict compliance with the conditions under which they are allowed to work, with a sanctioning procedure that can impose heavy fines.

This government control covers all the circumstances that comprise the almadraba: the number permitted (today, four on the Andalusian coast), their location, dimensions, set-up and anchoring, distances, depth, seasonality and duration, personnel and working conditions, signage, type of nets, etc.

And and most importantly, of course: supervision of the number of fish taken, or quota, and their minimum size, which makes it illegal – and in fact impossible – to catch fish of more than 150 kilos in almadrabas. This allows them to reach sexual maturity and to reproduce.

 

 The difference between almadrabas and abusive methods

The virtues of the almadraba in comparison with trawling and, above all, purse seine fishing, are obvious.Conflict between traditional fishing methods and new technologies go back a long way and became evident with the 18th-century fishing crisis, during which the trawling technique was described as “ruthless and cruel” in contrast to the almadraba as the “greatest and most interesting art known on the coast of Cadiz and perhaps in all the nations of Europe” (P. Miravent, 1850).These other methods, and especially the purse seine, are extractive, massive, aggressive and harmful systems that result in indiscriminate, industrialised, savage and uncivilised fishing supported by technological methods and the location of illegal schools, thus depleting fishing grounds and impeding the reproduction and continuity of the species.

The industrial purse seine fleet devoted to the fattening-cage business, which operates with the help of helicopters in the main breeding areas of the species in the Mediterranean Sea, is the direct and most important cause of overfishing and the risk of extinction. They do not respect catch tonnages or sizes, capturing live small fry for transport to fattening in farms created in the late 90s.

The ICCAT Management Plan has been a resounding failure and administrative control has been inoperative and impossible to enforce, which means that control by European and international agencies in this fishery is totally ineffective. In fact, in less than ten years of uncontrolled development the purse-seine industry has achieved what the almadraba has not in 30 centuries: turn bluefin tuna into an endangered species.

The Almadraba alliance against these practices is composed of the people of the almadraba itself, environmentalists and scientists. They managed to persuade the European Parliament to adopt protection measures in 2006 such as extension of the biological moratorium, increase in the minimum weight, catch limits, limits to the number of fattening farms and surveillance and control measures which, although they have served to hinder the abuses, have not been able to prevent the purse seine industry from putting the species at risk with the consent and direct participation of major European countries such as Italy, France, Spain, Croatia and Malta that even use EU subsidies to modernise their purse-seine tuna fleets.

Absence of cruelty in the death of tuna in the almadraba

Death is never more than this: to die. It always comes to the same end. The slaughter of animals for human consumption implies their death en masse. The slaughterhouses of any species of poultry, livestock, fishery or fish farm entail the sad spectacle of the death and subsequent bleeding of the animal, inevitable to ensure that their meat is edible and of good quality. Civilization tries to mitigate cruelty as much as possible by controlling the process to avoid useless suffering. The almadraba is no different and fish are now loaded on board using ropes and cranes instead of hooks.

The quality of tuna meat depends directly on a quick death and rigor mortis of the fish. The method is a fleeting, accurate knife cut in the gills that achieves the desired quick death and avoids suffering.

           

Slow fish: good, clean and fair

The almadraba is a good fishing method because it is not aggressive, massive or indiscriminate but legal, selective and random, respecting the species and the survival of the younger fish with their life cycle and migratory customs.

Almadraba is environmentally friendly, not polluting, invasive or disrespectful to the environment. As a natural method it does not need cutting-edge technology but instead uses simple manual, artisanal, human resources.

Since the number of fish that will be caught is not known in advance, since it is not an extensive production system but accounts for less than 2% of the world’s catch and since it is an ancestral and traditional form of fishing and a way of life for people based on historic rights of vital social importance, the almadraba is fair.

All these reasons lead to one striking conclusion: the absolute sustainability of almadraba fishing gear.

It could be argued that, having reached the harsh reality that thunnus thynnus is currently endangered – pushed to the edge of extinction by the voracious, interminable consumption of major markets like the Japanese with its refrigerated ships – it makes no difference which fishing gear or method we are talking about and that what is needed is an all-inclusive moratorium that would ban commercial fishing worldwide. I do not agree with this view. What must be controlled or even prohibited by strict, coercive regulations is purse seine fishing and its unlimited fleet of big ships.

I insist that due to its immediacy and ease of control the almadraba does not contribute to endangering the species. The application of a maximum annual catch in almadraba gear is easy to monitor and sufficient to protect the future viability of the tuna. In this way, following the EU directives at all times, the desired recovery and consolidation of the species would be assured, the historic rights of the method respected and the way of life and subsistence of the Andalusian villages that make a living from the sea preserved for future generations.

Sources and Bibliography:

  • ICAAT – International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas.
  • Ministry of the Environment.
  • Oceana
  • Organization of Fishing Producers of Almadraba (OPPA).
  • WWF / Adena – World Forum for Nature.
  • Spanish and Community legislation (EC)
  • Various historical excerpts.
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