SOS – Save Our Sardines!

Set against the world’s escalating crises, Portugal’s sardine hiatus may seem like small potatoes – but it is an issue that is igniting fishing communities up and down the country and leaving everyone who delights in the country’s signature fish worse off. The Resident reports on the perfect storm that threatens to transform the humble sardine into food that only the rich can afford

Portugal’s sardine fishing fleet is in uproar. “Ludicrous fishing quotas” that have already barred boats in key areas from catching any more sardines this summer are pushing fishermen to the brink.

In the Algarve, quotas are expected to be reached by Friday – leaving vital weeks of summer visitors with no prospect of eating sardines at all.

For a country that traditionally consumes tens of thousands of tons of sardines every year, it is nothing short of a national tragedy. But for fishermen whose livelihoods hang in the balance, it is a turning point.

The country’s net fishing fleet association boss Humberto Jorge has threatened mutiny.

Talking to Lusa news agency earlier this summer, Jorge explained that the quotas not only make no sense “as there is no shortage of sardines in the sea”, they are being revised downwards to such an extent that soon it won’t be worth fishing for them at all.

Instead of taking government edicts on the chin, Jorge warns fishermen will go-it-alone.

As we write, an appeal by 10 borough councils to extend this year’s quotas had just been vetoed by the commission for the accompaniment of sardine fishing, which insisted that “measures taken this year have stemmed the disappearance of sardines and allowed for some recuperation of stocks”.

Meantime, Nazaré fishermen who have already exhausted this year’s quotas protested outside the Ministry of Sea and Agriculture in Lisbon, with the full backing of their local council.

Sardines triple in price

Anyone who loves sardines will have noticed a difference this year. Not only is the price per kilo well up again (prices have tripled in the last five years), sardines have been skinnier than usual. Some will say they have “not been worth eating” – and this is the argument behind the quotas.

Back in June this year, Público carried an article, proclaiming “Portuguese eat 13 sardines a second … but it’s the lowest figure ever!”

The paper explained that seasonal catches have dipped alarmingly over the last decades.

Whereas 20 years ago boats were regularly hauling in 200,000 tons of sardines, 10 years ago that figure had dipped to 100,000 tons and more recently it was right down to 28,000 tons throughout Portugal and Spain.

Thus the international council for the exploration of the sea (ICES) began suggesting quotas. And their suggestion for next year’s quota is what threatens to bring the whole issue to boiling point.

With this year’s quota of 13,000 tons already all but exhausted, ICES is recommending that next year Spain and Portugal together be limited to just 1,587 tons.

Humberto Jorge claims it is an outrage. “How can an international organisation that bases its recommendations on minimally credible scientific data go from recommending quotas in the order of 70,000 tons to 1,500 tons in the space of four years,” he queried.

If the government accepts the quota for 2016, it will be showing itself to be against the fishing sector as a whole, he warned, and “will have to send in the police and armed forces” to enforce it.

“Net fishermen will not accept this,” he thundered – insisting ICES has got its data wrong.

Mayors from local fishing communities back him up, with Peniche mayor António José Correia telling RTP news that if quotas were set at 30,000 tons, sardine stocks would still increase by as much as 2% this year.

A government guarantee that fishermen barred from exercising their craft will receive compensation payments after 10 days of being landlocked – running from €20 a day to €27 for boat masters – has left fishermen unimpressed.

Reasons behind the drop in sardine numbers

The reasons for the sardines drop in numbers are largely cyclical. This doesn’t make them any easier to cope with, explains Público, describing a similar dip in California in the 50s that took four decades to resolve. But here, the problem has been combined with increasing sea temperatures, in which sardines do not thrive.

For now it is a waiting game – with the government doing everything it can to finesse over the issue as it is assailed by problems of a less gastronomic but equally pressing nature pre-October 4’s elections.

The only thing we can be sure of is that the prospect of a nice full plate of glistening plump sardines is rapidly disappearing over Portugal’s horizon.

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‘Most fishing boats depend largely on the sardine’

The Resident spoke to people affected by the sardine crisis in Portimão, known as the Sardine Capital of the Algarve, to hear their views.

1. Do you think Portugal’s sardine quota is too low?

2. How are the quotas affecting fishermen?

3. Do you believe that fishermen may start to revolt?

Daniel Marcos
37, fish reselling
company Isidro Martins
1. It is low, but also poorly managed. The Algarve has been left behind and there are even fishing boats from the north of Portugal which are coming down south to fish the sardines that we could be fishing ourselves if we were allowed a larger quota.
2. We haven’t been affected as we deal with small amounts of sardines, but I know that larger companies are struggling as they don’t have enough fish to meet the demand
3. If they make the quotas unthinkably low like they are planning, boats won’t even set out to sea next year. It won’t be worth it.

Jorge Vairinhos
56, Barlapescas
association of producers
1. The real problem is how the quota was distributed throughout Portugal. It is considerably lower in the Algarve. Just two boats in Sines are allowed to fish more than the Algarve. The right to fish should be equal all across the country.
2. It could become a serious problem. Most fishing boats depend largely on the sardine. Other species don’t have the same market value. And when the quota is finally exceeded, fishermen will have to waste a lot of time separating the sardines from the other fish they catch.
3. Most of the fishermen are aware that sardines are running low. That’s why they are still mostly calm. But things might become chaotic if they lower the quota again as has been suggested in the news.

João Vieira
40, owner,
Teca da Sardinha restaurant

1. What’s your opinion on the controversy surrounding Portugal’s sardine quota?
I think that the quotas should be based on feedback from fishermen. They are the ones out at sea.

2. Have you felt a difference in prices?
We haven’t felt many differences as the quota still hasn’t been exceeded in Portimão. But even if it is, restaurants can buy sardines from Spain at virtually the same price… even though they are not as good.

3. Will lower quotas mean fewer sardines at restaurants?
Like I said, we can always buy them from Spain. But the truth is that in September, when the quotas are expected to be exceeded, there are fewer people looking to eat sardines. So in a way, it evens out.

Interviews by Michael Bruxo
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