Portugal's fishermen are catching more sardines

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Portugal and Spain are increasing catch quotas to around 44,000 tons because the stocks have recovered strongly in a short time. Surprising, because in 2018 the sardine fishery on the Iberian Peninsula was threatened with extinction.

Alfonso Vale's “Aventureiro” shortly before leaving the port of Peniche

Peace, joy – grilled sardines! For the first time in many years, the start of the sardine season in Portugal is all sunshine. Not only everywhere in the country, but also among the sardine fishermen themselves. Because they are not only allowed to bring in more this year, but also catch longer, because the sardine stocks in the Atlantic off the Iberian Peninsula have grown faster than expected.

“Last year there were already a lot of sardines,” recalls cutter owner Afonso Vale. His ship, the Aventureiro, is the only one still in the port of the fishing stronghold of Peniche, a city in central Portugal. “The net is broken,” Vale scolds. “But as soon as we're done, we'll leave.”

As soon as the networks are ok again , wants to leave Afonso Vale: The sardines are coming!

Sustainable without the EU

Sardines belong to Portugal like sausages to Frankfurt. They are not only put in cans with oil, but above all grilled on the table, all summer long. What used to be poor people's food has become a delicacy that was threatened with extinction four years ago, also due to overfishing. “A tough but sensible government fisheries policy and not least the cooperation of the fishermen and their representatives helped to prevent this,” explains Jorge Humberto, chairman of the sardine fishermen's association ANOP. Unlike most types of fish, sardine fishing is not subject to the European quota system.

That dates back to 1983 and simply didn't include sardines as they are mostly caught in Spain and Portugal. However, these countries did not join the EU until 1986 and were only required to develop their own sardine conservation and catching plans. And because it should stay that way, the two countries have now decided on a joint multi-year plan to protect the stocks.

“That's a good thing,” says Humberto Jorge, “because what often takes a long time in the EU can be decided by quickly scheduled meetings and telephone conferences.” The success proves that both countries are right, the stocks are no longer in danger of tipping over and the fishermen can work properly again. Around 3,000 jobs are secured on 115 ships that are licensed for sardine fishing in Portugal.

Humberto Jorge thinks there will be more fishing “if stocks continue to recover.”

Rapid Breeding

By November, around 44,000 tons may be fished in the Iberian Atlantic waters, 29,400 tons – around two thirds of which – are in Portugal. “It's not just enough to meet the demand for fresh fish,” says Humberto Jorge happily. “We can also supply the canning industry again, which previously had to buy fish from Morocco and England.” And of course the fishermen hoped to catch even more sardines in the years to come – if the stocks continue to recover.

This is exactly what fishermen and scientists have often argued about in the past, says marine biologist Sérgio Leandro from the research institute at the local technical college. “The fact is that biomass has more than doubled since 2015,” he emphasizes.

Because sardines reproduce after just one year, protective measures take effect more quickly than with other fish species. Everything indicates that the stocks are doing better and that the quotas have rightly been increased. “But we still know very little about the ocean and the many factors that can affect fish stocks.” And environmental organizations like the WWF still classify the sardines as an endangered species.

Sergio Leandro is pleased that “the biomass has more than doubled since 2015”

Hope for full nets

The fishermen's representative Humberto Jorge is nevertheless optimistic: “We hope that the sardine fisheries in Portugal and Spain will also receive the important MSC eco-label again next year.” Portugal lost this certificate in 2013 because of endangered stocks.

“Pse seine fishing is one of the most environmentally friendly in the world,” says cutter owner Afonso Vale. Because the shoals of sardines are practically enclosed with a net, there is almost no bycatch. Then he goes on board the Aventureiro, the net is repaired, the cutter can set sail and come back the next morning with lots of fresh sardines. Hopefully.