Every year, gigantic swarms of tuna fish migrate past the coast of Andalusia. The fishermen catch the fish using the historic almadraba system. Greed and globalization are now threatening the delicate balance between hunters and prey.
Here they come – dark shadows race through the deep blue. The Atlantic Ocean, which only moments before had been as smooth and flat as a mirror, explodes in a whirl of sea spray. Fins slice through the surface of the water, transforming the sea off the coast of Coast de la Luz into a gigantic whirlpool. José “Pepe” Acosta, first captain of the fishing fleet of Zahara de los Atunes, and a man possessed of ice-blue eyes that gleam above his walrus-like moustache, nods briefly to Rafael Márquez in the next boat. Rafael zips up his wetsuit, pulls down his goggles, all the while puffing at the damp cigarette in the corner of his mouth. He grabs a 2-meter long pole with a bolt gun attached to its lower end and slides off the side of the boat into the maelstrom of bodies, like a gladiator of the seas. The battle begins.
Every spring, the bluefin tuna, which locals also call red tuna due to the color of their meat, migrate from the Atlantic to the warmer waters of the Mediterranean. They have gorged themselves and now weigh up to 820 kilograms each. Their mission is to spawn in tranquil waters. But it is a perilous journey: Between Europe and Africa, the sea narrows to a strait just under 15 kilometers wide where hungry orcas lie in wait.
The vast swarm opens up like a fan, the strong currents press the fish into the bays along the Andalusian coast, where Pepe, Rafael and several hundred fishermen await their arrival. In the harbors of Barbate, Tarifa, Zahara de los Atunes and Conil de la Frontera they have perfected a method once used by the Phoenicians to catch fish: the almadraba is a complex system of nets that hangs down into the ocean like a knotted maze.
Two days previously: Pepe, 61, and Rafael, 46, are leaning against a container in the harbor, their faces grim. The Levante winds are blowing vigorously out to sea, whipping up the waves and making fishing impossible. “If I try diving in rough sea like that the current will sweep me into the nets, and that could kill me,” says Rafael. Pepe nods in agreement. He is the complete embodiment of the archetypal fisherman: taciturn and always with a cigarette between his fingers. Before the howling of the wind gives him a headache he starts speaking, reminiscing about the old days. “I am an Almadrabero of the fifth generation. I was 17 the first time I went out, my heart beating so hard I thought it would burst. There was less machinery then: we rowed and cast the anchors by hand. When we pulled the nets back up, the ocean would begin to boil.” Pepe takes a deep drag on his untipped cigarette. “Men have lost thumbs out there.”
The swarms travelling to their spawning grounds are the largest biomass in motion in the world. The fish are swimming automatons, compact slabs of muscle that reach top speeds of 80 kilometers an hour. Bluefin tuna can grow up to five meters long, and they need plenty of space. These factors make it too difficult and too expensive to breed tuna on fish farms. This explains why tuna meat is so sought-after, particularly in Japan, where it is served as sushi and sashimi, tartar or filet steaks cooked on a hot stone. In 2013, at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, a restaurant owner paid 1.4 million euros for a tuna that weighed just under 222 kilos. This madness had a knock-on effect: “Ten years ago, our nets were almost empty,” says Pepe, blowing a plume of smoke up at the sky. “Those were tough times. There isn’t very much else here.” A little tourism, some hashish smuggling from Morocco – and fishing. Four hundred families depend on the almadraba for a living.
Both environmentalists and fishermen agree that the Almadraberos are not to blame for the drop in the number of fish. The real culprits can be found on the massive fleets of trawlers that hunt swarms with reconnaissance planes and deplete the ocean with seine nets. Now that tuna fishing is rigorously regulated with low quotas, stocks are gradually recovering. This hasn’t stopped the marine activists’ criticism: for WWF, red tuna is still an endangered species and should not be fished. “It makes me so mad,” growls Rafael. “Our way of fishing is 3000 years old. How can that not be sustainable? We catch only 0.03 percent of the tuna fish that migrate to the Mediterranean.” Pepe nods. “The holes in our nets are so big that we only catch fish that are older than eight years!” Almadraba comes from an Arabic word and means the “place of the strike”. Pepe and Rafael are not only doing battle with tuna fish, they are also fighting for their grandfathers’ heritage.
The fishermen are paid between 12 and 15 euros per kilo. A visit to the fish factory Gadira shows just how the global fish industry picks up speed afterwards. The factory is a bare hall, only a seagull’s squawk distance from the mooring places of the fishing boats, and it’s cold in here, the thermometer only just grazing ten or twelve degrees. The air is heavy with the smell of the sea, salt and death. Carmelo Pérez Salcedo, 57, has arms like tree trunks. He’s been fileting tuna fish for 30 years. Right now, he’s bent over a 300-kilo whopper, his butcher’s knife dancing in his hands. With swift slashes Carmelo quarters the fish and exposes the long back fillets, called lomos. His blade rattles over the fishbones. “Because of this sound they call me ‘Ronqueador’, the snorer!” Carmelo laughs; fish blood drips onto the white tiles, painting an abstract picture on the ground.
Carmelo offers a piece of otoro, the oily flesh around the belly which has a white marbled pattern, giving it the appearance of Kobe beef. Akira Nihei, 26, rubs it between his fingers. “Perfect,” says the young Japanese trader, blowing out a white puff of breath. Akira works for a fish wholesaler who supplies sushi restaurants all across Nippon. He is staying in Barbate for a month, for the duration of the fishing season. “I want to buy 50 tons this year,” he says, bouncing up and down in his white rubber boots. So what do your compatriots love so much about red tuna, Akira? “It is wild, doesn’t come from a farm. And it isn’t always available.” His eyes shine, “The quality of the meat is excellent – but the flavor is unpredictable. No fish is identical.” He is reluctant to reveal his company’s prices, but more than willing to talk about those of the competition: good quality costs around 65 dollars per kilo on the Tokyo fish market. That is five times what Pepe and Rafael get.
The Japanese didn’t just bring the yen to Costa de la Luz, they also brought their cuisine
The door to the cold storage room flies open. A dozen men in down jackets form a chain; laughing and joking they heave slabs of tuna fish into a freight container. The meter-long pieces look like steel beams. Straight after catching, the fish are shock-frozen at minus 60 degrees for ultimate freshness. “Those are my first 24 tons,” says Akira, smiling. He examines each individual piece under a microscope, meticulously ticking it off his list. In the refrigerated container ship the red tuna will take three weeks to get to Tokyo where it is already eagerly awaited.
The Japanese didn’t just bring the yen to Costa de la Luz, they also brought their cuisine. Twenty years ago, the fishermen would chuck their tuna on the grill and leave it there until it was gray and dry. The women would boil the fish in a simple stew of tomatoes and onions. And the children would laugh at the Japanese fish merchants who while they were waiting for the boats to return would unpack raw tuna and then dip it in coffee…which was, of course, soy sauce.
These misunderstandings have become a thing of the past; the Andalusians have done their culinary homework. Today, they call tuna “Red Gold” or “Ibérico of the Sea”. At the tuna festival in the small town of Zahara de los Atunes the region’s chefs display the delicacies they have conjured up with this ingredient. Forty restaurants and bars compete for the annual prize, and each has created a special tuna tapa. The visitors go from door to door, wash down each savory morsel with a cool cerveza or a sherry, and carry on to the next offering.
Joaquín Olmedo Muñoz, 60, head chef in the stylish Restaurant Antonio, has won the competition several times. Last year, he served tuna tataki with caviar – wittily presented in a sardine can. And this year? “I want to tease my guests a little,” he says, grinning. He places a plate of profiteroles on the table – small choux buns with chocolate sauce. In this case, though, the pastry is filled with morillo, the best cut of the red tuna from the neck of the fish. So what’s the chocolate sauce? “It’s a black Hollandaise, colored with sepia ink. Joaquín smiles. Ninety percent of Andalusian tuna used to be exported; now, only 50 percent leaves. Around 20 percent is processed right here on shore. The restaurant scene in the four almadraba towns is booming, and rising numbers of tourists are flocking here – all thanks to the fish.
The day of the great hunt dawns early. At half past five in the morning at Barbate harbor ten boats peel away from the pier, crewed by 50 fishermen – silhouettes in the moonlight, their cigarettes glowing like fireflies. Very slowly, the new day dawns over the hills. After an hour’s chugging, the fleet slows down. Five nautical miles off the coast, rows of buoys bob up backboard like buttons on a dark velvet suit. They pinpoint the almadraba nets. The boats maneuver into a circle, enclosing the copo, the last and uppermost chamber of the nets. Then the fishermen begin to heave the wet nets over the sides of the vessels and onto the decks. They drag the tuna fish struggling out of the ocean.
Death sounds like a bottle being uncorked. “Only a few years ago, there were no lupara,” says Rafael, as he slips into his flippers, referring to the name of the weapon he uses to shoot tuna fish in the head. “We used to use hooks and knives to catch the fish. It was a battle.” His voice hums with pride and the crucifix on the silver chain around his neck bobs up and down. Rafael broke his nose, a foot and a wrist doing battle with tuna fish. Not that that’s the reason he and the other fishermen now carry guns. It isn’t pity either. The reason is money: If the fish die under stress it diminishes the quality of the meat.
The hunt lasts for two hours. Rafael and a second diver kill 120 tuna fish. The massive bodies are roped together, hoisted on board and put on ice in the hulls of the two largest vessels. Captain Pepe is satisfied. He’s met his target and caught his quota. A biologist on the boat carefully records the weight of each fish. The four almadraba fleets are allowed to catch 1097 tons this year, and not a single gram more. The government needs to ensure that red tuna continue to come to Andalusia, and so do Rafael and Pepe – along with all the chefs and hoteliers, the gourmets and the Japanese fish merchants. There’s just one problem: when many people all want the same thing, it’s often gone in a flash.