Has Tuna Fish had its Chips?

Lynne Kingdon Booker 


In 2008 the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) estimated that European and North African fishermen were hauling in more than 3 times the number of tuna recommended by scientists. Overfishing threatens the sustainability of fish stocks and of the tuna fishing industry itself. Blatant abuses of bluefin fishing restrictions prompted the European Union last year to end the season a couple of weeks early in its waters. There are however too many ports where tuna is landed illegally nor are there enough inspectors to ensure that the law is enforced. Tuna is one of the most highly prized fish in Japanese cuisine and the bluefin tuna is used to produce the highly-priced delicacy known as sashimi. It is no wonder that Japanese businessmen bought into the Mediterranean tuna fishing industry in the 1990s and revolutionized methods for catching and fattening tuna. Special fattening pens encourage fishermen to haul in many more smaller bluefin during the limited fishing season. These small and young wild tuna are kept captive and fattened before they are caught and sold all year round as fresh tuna in the high value Japanese market.


The Northern (or Atlantic) bluefin tuna, Thunnus thynnus, is a highly evolved animal which can cover enormous distances at great speed by adaptations such as thermoregulation (keeping its muscles warm and therefore more efficient) and high haemoglobin levels (which keep the blood well oxygenated). Large schools of tuna cross the Atlantic and travel through the straits of Gibraltar to spawn in the Mediterranean around Sicily and in the Adriatic. On the eastward journey, the fish are fat and full of eggs. On their return journey westwards having spawned, they are thinner and voracious and they overwinter in the temperate zones of the Atlantic - possibly the Sargasso Sea - and at great depth. Their habits are influenced by water temperature and salinity; they like it warm and salty. There is often seismic activity off the coast of the Algarve and any upvents of gases may cause the tuna to change their route. It has been reported for hundreds of years that tuna avoid areas of water which smell bad. Tuna have a very slow breeding rate (taking at least 10 years to become sexually mature) and are therefore vulnerable to overfishing. The Algarve coast has always attracted tuna and these fish have been taken by Algarvians from the time of the Phoenicians. The Roman coinage from Ossónoba, Balsa and Baesuris portrays tuna, as do the mosaics at Milreu, which indicates that the industry at that time was economically very important.


The preferred method of fishing for tuna off the Algarve was by use of almadravas or armações. These armações are static units involving thousands of metres of net, thousands of metres of cable, hundreds of anchors, thousands of buoys and often as many as 200 men. Half of the men would prepare the equipment ashore and the other half would be at sea building the armação which could be up to 600 hectares in area. The migrating tuna were directed by the nets towards a central netted area (o copo) from which the fish could not escape. The net was then raised (a levantada) and the bullfight of the sea (a tourada do mar) began. This bloody killing of the fish is called the copejo. Fishermen armed with sharpened hooks (bicheiros) hooked the tuna and hoisted them into the boats, often using the strength of the fish as it tried to escape in order to land it. There were always some fish which remained inaccessible in the centre of the copo, and the fishermen turned hunter as they jumped into the copo to hook the last of the tuna.


In the past, armações have been constructed at 35 different sites along the Algarve coast although it is unlikely that at any one time more than a dozen armações would have been working. The last operating armação was the Medo das Cascas just off Tavira; in its last year of operation in 1972 it caught just one tuna.


In the days before industrial refrigeration fresh tuna was something of a liability, and was for local consumption only. The part that was to be sold, and that which was to be kept for later, was formerly salted in great cellars in Lagos, Tavira, Vila Real de Santo António and Ayamonte. Most of the salted tuna was then sold in Spain. Salted tuna was kept and transported in barrels, and the invention of the canning process made an enormous difference to preserving of the fish. One of the early industrialists in the conserving of fish by canning was an Andalusian landowner, Sebastian Ramirez. His business of preparing and canning tuna in brine began in 1854. His canning works were located first in Vila Real de Santo António and later in Albufeira (1910), Olhão (1910), Setúbal (1928), Matosinhos (1940s) and Peniche (1959). Although a scarcity of tuna in the Gulf of Cádiz led to the closure in 1996 of the Ramirez factory in Vila Real de Santo António after five generations, the Ramirez brand of tinned fish is still to be found on supermarket shelves and is one of the oldest in the world. Along the Algarve coast in the 19th and 20th centuries, there were well over a hundred canning factories belonging to different companies, but only three now remain, since there are practically no tuna landed in the Algarve.


The Algarve´s first Portuguese king, Afonso III, reserved the tuna and corvina monopoly to the crown. Later, in 1443, D Afonso V gave exclusive rights for tuna in the Algarve to Infante D Henrique (Henry the Navigator) and in 1502, D Manuel created the Feitoria das Almadravas in Lagos. During the 14th and 15th centuries the bulk of the tuna fishing industry was organised by Sicilians and Genoese but a 60% tax on tuna levied by the king was so heavy that the Italians gave up and left. Royal taxes rose to 70% and further decline in the industry followed. Fishermen could not afford to replace their worn out equipment, there was not enough salt to preserve the fish, taxes were high and there was a danger from marauding corsairs. It was not until the reforms of the Marquês de Pombal in 1773 that the industry began to revive. Pombal created the Companhia Geral das Pescarias Reaes do Algarve. From 1787 - 1818 the company managed the sites of 15 armações between Lagos and Tavira. It was not until 1830 that the saviour of the Algarve´s tuna industry emerged in the form of Queen D Maria II. She cut taxes, broke the company monopoly and opened Portuguese waters for any Portuguese to fish them. During the heyday of the industry in the late 19th century there were so many tuna off the Algarve that there weren´t enough people to catch, land and sell them.


By the early 19th century, the bulk of the industry had moved eastwards from the Barlavento to the Sotovento where tuna could be caught either heading east towards the spawning grounds or when they returned westwards. As the 20th century progressed, the number of tuna caught declined progressively year by year. Spanish almadrabas along the Huelva and Cádiz coast prejudiced the Portuguese nets and the working armações were badly affected by purse seine fishing boats and trawl fishing ( arrasto ). Nets abandoned on the seabed did not help and overfishing of sardine and cavala meant the tuna had little food. The tuna is by nature a timid fish, and the noise created by steam-engined and motor boats scared them from their traditional migration routes. Tuna fishing was a tough job and men no longer wanted this type of work. Meanwhile a more profitable industry had developed, which required the same sea shore and the same coastal waters in the summer months. The arrival of mass tourism from the 1960s was providential because tuna fishing and tourism can not share the same stretch of coast. If overfishing continues at its present rate, tourists and tuna will no longer appear together at the dinner table. It will be chips with everything except tuna!