The rise in the price of fuel has been one more drop in the immense sea of problems in the fishing sector, which, however, has barely stopped going out to fish. Diesel, bait, supplies, rates and the price of nets that are made of plastic have risen. Everything goes up, except the price of fish. And there are less and less. Except for this scarcity and contamination, everything seems to have a less complicated solution than the one that the fishermen themselves consider essential: generational change.
In 20 years, half of the fleet will have been lost, according to the calculations of the sector itself, which admits its responsibility for not having been able to explain the positive part of the profession. “The nautical schools are full but there are very few people who end up dedicating themselves to the sea,” summarizes Basilio Otero, president of the National Federation of Brotherhoods. Vincent Olivares, aka Panollo, attests to it. He is the fourth generation of a family of fishermen. “After me, nothing. It’s over. I want something else for my son,” she states.
71.64% of the fishing boats are part of the artisanal fleet, with boats less than 12 meters in length, and only 8.39% are more than 24 meters, according to data from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. It is precisely in the artisanal fleet where aging is greater, with an average of 35 years, in a profession in which retirement is allowed ten years earlier than in other jobs due to the hardness of the work. The lack of spare parts even leads the skippers to delay their retirement because they are not even compensated for scrapping the boats.
Panollo is 53 years old, has three hernias in his back, another three in his neck and two broken menisci. Injuries tell part of what has been his life for nearly 40 years, when he dropped out of college and first joined at age 14. He now he is the patron of Elvira i Panollet, with which he practices the art of trammel netting in the Mediterranean. The weather and the moon mark their schedules. The same goes out to soak at two in the morning, than at noon. Pick up the nets again or wait offshore for them to fill up. He complains but without acrimony or belligerence. He admits that he is sleepy, cold, aches and pains but does not deny that it compensates him. On any given Wednesday, at seven in the morning, and after so many years, his face and his words show that he continues to enjoy the wind on his face and the sunrise. “We have lived well, without luxuries,” he says as he straightens the rudder. “I don’t think my children are as happy in their work as I have been in mine, but I have suffered so much that I want a better life for them,” he remarks.
The national president of the brotherhoods does nothing more than ratify the words of this fisherman. “We have a significant deficit of both shipowners and sailors and it is that the parents themselves are more interested in dedicating themselves to something more comfortable, even if it is less lucrative,” says Otero. Most of the sailors do not have a fixed salary, they go to the part, their salary depends on the catches. In the case of employers, professionalization has led to the demand for training that not many have access to and that Otero reveals as very profitable: “They are raffled,” he says, and places between 100,000 and 500,000 euros per year gross the wages of the bosses dedicated to skewer fishing and those of the tuna boats. However, those are just a few. Most are skippers of their small boats, with two or three sailors, who neither consider their profession nor any other way of life. “We have been too corporate. We have nothing to do with the romantic idea of a fisherman, nor do we wear patches over our eyes or hooks,” says Basilio Otero ironically. “This is a lucrative business,” he insists.
He knows in depth all the sides of the coin.
Panollo saw how his father and grandfather made a living fishing, but profitability was not the main reason why he has left half his life at sea. In Grao de Castellón, when he was a child, there was no more distraction, after school, than going to the rocks to emulate his elders and try to get something or go to the pier, to see how his father and uncles arrived . Actually, he never considered doing anything else. “Now they leave school and go to English, to music or to the swimming pool”, he generalizes.
The concern not only worries the brotherhoods. The Spanish Fisheries Confederation (Cepesca), which brings together 95% of the deep-sea fleet (the one that takes place far from the coast) already placed in 2019 the shortage of crew members as “the most serious problem facing the fishing fleet Spanish”.
“In 10 or 15 years, it will be over”
Luis and Miguel Cortijo are brothers and have been fishing with Panollo for more than a decade. “In 10 or 15 years, it will be over”, they say about the consequences of the lack of young people. During navigation, words barely mediate. The skipper directs the boat to the point where he dropped the nets and the sailors prepare everything to start gathering up. When they reach the side of the buoys, they begin to raise nets, releasing each fish, one by one, from the mesh. To untangle the algae and return them to the sea. To discard the species that are not sold. To pamper the ones that are paid more expensive. Like this for three hours, without stopping for just a minute. “They don’t come”, are the only two words that Panollo utters from time to time, when meters of net are collected without any catch. “Dentex, urta!”, He shouts announcing the species when he detects a large one that needs to slow down the collection of the mesh. Those are the moments when he changes his face. The three smile at a piece of several kilos. Mentally, they translate it into euros.
The Elvira i Panollet places, every time it goes out to fish, 4,000 meters of mesh, although it has authorization for more. But it is that his employer, who links one proverb after another to talk about the sea, believes in the need for sustainable fishing. And he complains about contamination. “There are fish that my father told me about that are legends to me,” he recalls. Andrea Márquez has a master’s degree in Environmental Assessment and Monitoring of Marine and Coastal Ecosystems and carried out a project on the sustainability of the fishing sector in the Valencian Community. According to this study, by 2025 there will be a 35% decrease in the number of crew members and a 31% decrease in the number of vessels compared to 2019. Márquez points out that although measures have been adopted, “these have not helped to increase the attractiveness of the activity in order to attract the younger generations.”
Everyone talks about possible solutions to maintain the fishing fleet, although none defends them as infallible. The fact is that both the president of the Federation of Brotherhoods, as well as Cepesca and the researcher Andrea Márquez, agree that the profession and its benefits should be publicized among young people, but they also talk about training in fishing and open days in fishing ports, as well as visits by shipowners and skippers to schools. “In Burela (Lugo, 10,000 inhabitants) the children do not know the port and that is a failure,” says Basilio Otero. Another of the measures in which they coincide is in the improvement of the best social and labor conditions for the workers, although in the case of the sailors who receive a part of the catches it is very complicated. Panollo asks for less bureaucracy, more specific legislation and less psychological pressure for each day that he goes out to sea in which he would also like to be able to fish more tuna than he is allowed. “There have been no worse times,” he says.
The Day of the Patron Eliva i Panollet it ends with the fish auction, which is carried out downwards. That is, an initial price is marked and, from that, it goes down until a buyer bids on it. The boss has made the calculations for him, by eye. He misses eight kilos. In total, 158 kilos of fish. “I carry the wisdom of my father, my grandfather and my great-grandfather, but it’s over,” he says.
Exclusive content for subscribers
read without limits