Spain pulls in its nets

BARRY CAME October 5 1998

Spain pulls in its nets

BARRY CAME October 5 1998

Spain pulls in its nets




Early each morning, long before the sun rises over Vigo’s magnificent bay, the women appear. They are sturdy figures, matrons in broad aprons, with buckets in their hands, rubber boots on their feet. In the predawn gloom, they slip quietly through the maze of cobblestone lanes that wind down from El Berbés, the city’s medieval quarter, to the fishing port that lies at the bottom of the hill. There, bedlam awaits in the form of a marketplace, scene of a raucous, reeking drama that unfolds daily along Vigo’s waterfront. For the Puerto Pesquero, as the port is known, is the largest fish emporium on the planet, home to a modern-day armada of Spanish vessels. More than half a million tonnes of creatures hauled from the world’s oceans are landed there every year. And the robust matrons with their buckets and boots are key players. “We buy the fish, we sell the fish, we grade the fish, we weigh the fish, we haul the fish,” says Concepción Juarez, adding with a wink and a grin: “Sometimes, we even have time to eat the fish.” The 44-year-old woman utters the remark as she trudges from the shadowed alleyways of El Berbés into the bright fluorescent lighting of a huge dockside warehouse. Despite the hour, with not even a glimmer of the approaching dawn in the blackened sky outside, the building inside is a hive of activity. It pulsates with the staccato Spanish dialects of Galicia, delivered at full cry—and machine-gun speed—by platoons of burly men and stocky women dodging two-wheeled carts and forklifts piled high with crates. The air is heavy with the odor of dead sea life, heaped mounds of glistening mussels and hairy crabs, lobster, octopus, cuttlefish, prawn and two species of squid, one pale yellow, the other transparent purple.

There are fish everywhere: neat rows of swordfish, shark and tuna;

silvery sardines stacked in wooden trays; blue mackerel, red pompano, yellow pout, green sprat and brown anglerfish. Off in one corner, there are even a few frozen packages of the homely bottom feeder the Spanish call fletán negro, better known among Canadians as Greenland halibut, or turbot. ‘Yes,” Juarez acknowledges with a sombre nod, “that’s the little fellow that caused all the trouble.”

Canada’s ‘Turbot War” with Spain in 1995 still has the power to summon deep emotions along the rugged coast of Galicia in the northwestern corner of the country. The Spanish trawler Estai was based in Vigo when Canadian authorities, concerned about overfishing of turbot stocks, boarded and seized the vessel at gunpoint in international waters off Newfoundland’s Grand Banks. And it still operates out of the Galician city, although under a new name—Argos Galicia—and flying a new flag—Britain’s Union Jack—as it trawls for squid in the South Atlantic around the Falkland Islands. “It is going to take a long, long time for most of us around here to forget that particular unpleasantness,” says José Suarez-Llanos Rodriguez, assistant manager of Vigo’s Fishing Vessel Owners Co-operative.

Three separate court cases arising from the affair are still pending. Canada is challenging the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice in The Hague to hear an application from Spain that it determine the legality of Canada’s unilateral action on the high seas. The Vigo shipowners co-operative, backed by the Spanish regional authorities in Galicia, has launched an action in Brussels, seeking financial compensation from the European Union for that organization s role in the dispute. And Vigo-based José Pereira and Sons, owners of the Estai, have filed suit against the Canadian government in federal court in St. John’s, Nfld., for a yet-undetermined amount of punitive and special damages. None of the cases appears close to a resolution, especially the private suit in St. John’s. “We’ve been in the Canadian courts for al-

most three years now without much progress to report,” complains Pereira company lawyer Carlos Pérez-Bouzada González. ‘To be frank, if s a little tiring because we think the Canadian authorities are simply stalling. They’ve told us they have to obtain clearance for 30,000 pages of confidential government documents before they can proceed.”

Even without the recurrent legal reminders, few Gallegos— inhabitants of Galicia—can easily overlook an incident that struck so close to the region’s vital interests. Fish matter to the region, especially Vigo, a city of 300,000 on the south shore of a broad fjord-like estuary on the Atlantic coast. The port, in terms of the value of the catch, is the largest in the world, outpacing by a wide margin the Alaskan and Japanese ports that are second and third. The 500,000 tonnes of fresh, frozen and salted fish off-loaded in Vigo’s Puerto Pesquero last year contributed

Tlie fleet is smaller, but the country processes more fish


$2.5 billion to the local economy. The region’s fishing boats, accounting for close to one-third of the total European Union tonnage of fishing vessels, keep 10,000 fishermen working steadily. Another 35,000 people work in associated industries: building and repairing the fleet, and storing and processing the catch. With 500,000 cubic metres of freezer storage space already scattered over the hills that fringe Vigo’s estuary, plans are well under way to double that capacity in three to five years. ‘Take away our fish,” says Suarez-Llanos of the shipowners co-operative, “and you destroy our city.”

But it is not only the Gallegos who are currently utilizing Vigo’s facilities. José Ramón Barañano, director general of fishery resources at Spain’s ministry of fisheries in Madrid, points out that the country has, in recent years, become a net importer of fish and fish products. “Not so long ago,” he says, “we were importing 40 per cent of our fish requirements. Now, that figure is approaching 60 per cent.” The bulk of

those imports are channelled through Galicia’s two main fishing ports—Vigo, 30 km north of the Portuguese border, and La Coruña, on the northwestern tip of Spain.

On any given day, heavily laden, salt-caked, rust-streaked fishing vessels from around the world nudge to rest in the sprawling network of docks that line Vigo’s waterfront They include ships from neighboring Portugal and France, but also vessels flying the flags of far more distant countries, from Iceland to Argentina, even from as far away as Taiwan and South Korea. There is no great mystery about the reasons why. “They come for the money,” says Suarez-Llanos, rubbing a thumb and forefinger together in the worldwide gesture that spans all currencies. “Our prices are often better because international traders know they can find any kind of fish product they may be seeking.”

There is another reason for the growing international presence in Galicia’s fishing ports. For although Spain still maintains a large fish-

ing fleet, it no longer dominates the global industry as it once did. In the past decade, since joining the European Union in 1986, Spain has made some radical cuts, dropping 250,000 tonnes from a fleet that once registered 650,000 tonnes. ‘Ten to 20 years ago,” notes Barañano of the fisheries ministry, “Spain had 200 vessels on the high seas fishing for cod. Now, we have 18.” The country that before 1986 ranked third or fourth in the world in the size of its fleet is now 17th. Even tiny Iceland has twice as many boats as Spain. “The image of Spain’s fishing fleet,” argues Barañano, “no longer fits the reality.”

The fleet reduction that began in 1986 is now largely complete. ‘We’ve passed through the storm into calmer waters now,” says Suarez-Llanos. Several EU-funded programs provided financial incentives to help Spanish fishermen leave the business or otherwise reduce their harvest. Joint ventures—like the one that now sees the Estai flying a British flag—have protected jobs while technically diminishing the overall tonnage of Spanish-flag vessels. What is more, employment in the fishing sector has remained stable in the face of dwindling national catches because Spain is processing more fish from other nations’ fleets. “If we didn’t believe in the future of the fishing industry in Vigo,” points out Suarez-Llanos, “we would not now be doubling the size of our cold-storage capacity.”

Still, the Spanish fleet cannot escape the fact that the resource it and other nations are chasing is a diminishing one. Most countries have been making similar cuts in their fishing fleets. Spain’s difference is that it had so much to cut. The aim now, according to Barañano, is to “strike an equilibrium between the reasonable requirements of an industry that is very important to us without upsetting the delicate balance of life in the oceans.” It is no simple task, particularly not for a place like Vigo, where each day begins with a graphic, if chaotic, exhibition of the rich bounty the sea can provide. □