Stormy seas for Costa del Sol's fishing fleet

The fleet's catch is much lower than 30 years ago.
The fleet's catch is much lower than 30 years ago. / FRANCIS SILVA
  • The industry is worried about plans by Brussels to limit the capture of species such as hake, red mullet and crayfish in the western Mediterranean

  • The catch has been falling continually over the years, but higher prices have been some compensation

The fishing sector in Malaga province is facing important changes which are causing concern to fishing crews and boat owners and threatening to sink them even further in the downward spiral they've been suffering for years.

On one hand the European Commission wants to limit the capture of species such as mullet, hake and crayfish to enable the fishing grounds of the western Mediterranean to recover. In addition, in the near future all bivalve molluscs will have to be cleaned before being sold, because of a deterioration of water quality in the Malaga fishing grounds. These two measures are worrying the sector, which says it is already struggling to keep afloat.

In Malaga province alone the capture of the species that Europe wants to restrict represents a turnover of more than two million euros a year. Of this, hake (107,639 kilos) and red mullet (39,089 kilos) account for 1,306,483 euros. The 24,870 kilos of crayfish bring in 700,088 euros. Last year, Malaga's fishing boats sold 22,334, 566 euros' worth of fish, for a total catch of 7,024,000 kilos.

In the last 30 years the local fleet has gone from catching over 22 million kilos of fish and shellfish to barely seven million in 2017. That is a drop of two-thirds. Income from sales has dropped considerably. While in 1987 the 21,404,000 kilos caught were worth 32.6 million euros, last year the fishing sector only earned 22.3 million euros, a difference of 10.3 million. The reduction would have been even greater if it were not for the fact that the average price of the fish at the auctions rose from 1.53 to 3.18 euros a kilo during that time.

Buying from other ports

The reduction in catch forces the market to buy fish from other places, ranging from Huelva to Alicante, as well as Galicia and other countries on the Mediterranean, because demand in Malaga province is far greater than the capacity of the fishing fleet. Much of the fresh fish and shellfish sold in Malaga comes from elsewhere, according to official sources.

Pablo Rojas runs the popular Marisquería Jacinto seafood restaurant in Malaga. “I've never had to look for large clams outside Andalucía before, but this Easter I had to get them from Galicia. We always try to serve fish and shellfish from the Alborán Sea, but it is becoming more difficult,” he says. He believes it is hard to find certain products because the biological resting periods are not long enough for the species to recover.

In 2016, households in Spain spent 13.5 per cent of their food and drink budget on fish. According to a consumer report produced by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fishing, Food and the Environment, they spend 202.44 euros a head and consume 25.49 kilos per person per year.

In 2014 households in Andalucía consumed 199,500 tonnes of fish products, although only 43 per cent of them came from Andalucía. In 2017, only 48,124 tonnes of fish were caught in the waters off Andalucía.

The fishing sector in Malaga complains that it is being increasingly restricted and many boats have ceased to operate. The number dropped from 255 to 249 between 2016 and 2017. Employment has also dropped. Figures for 2016 show that the sector provided direct jobs for 1,005 workers, and indirect work for 2,485 (3,492 in total). In 1990, there used to be 1,500 fishing crew.

New fishing limits

Among the changes faced by Malaga fishermen is the new management plan for the Mediterranean, through which Brussels wants to limit the capture of species such as hake, mullet and crayfish because it considers that if it continues at the present rate 90 per cent will be over-exploited by 2025. As a result it wants to restrict the catch, reduce fishing during the first year of the plan and stop fishing on the seabed at a depth of more than 100 metres between 1 May and 31 July every year.

Spain, which wants to bring the European regulation forward and try to put the measures into effect within six months, says the plan focuses on “effort” (days and hours at sea), rather than imposing quotas. At present trawlers, which catch the species that the EC wants to protect, fish off Malaga from 6am to 6pm Mondays to Fridays, and the minimum depth at which they are authorised to trawl is 50 metres. For the sector, these limits are already sufficient.

Trawling captures species which are found on the sea bed, or close to it, such as prawns, crayfish, monkfish, octopus, cuttlefish, dogfish, mullet, spider fish, blue whiting, hake, whiting, sole, sea bream and mackerel, among others. In Malaga the trawlers are between 12 and 24 metres long, with a crew of between four and seven.

The Malaga fishing fleet currently consists of 249 boats, of which 36 are trawlers, 32 purse seine, 55 low power and 126 for shellfish.

For the regional government's Minister of Agriculture, Fishing and Development, Rodrigo Sánchez Haro, the profitability of the fishing fleet is of prime importance and he says the “drastic and substantial” reduction the EC is proposing is unacceptable.

Sánchez Haro says this year the minimum amount of time for fishing should be at least 210 days for trawlers, and that should not be reduced in forthcoming years. The central government wants to introduce successive reductions of ten per cent until 2020. For the regional minister, anything lower than an average of 190 days would seriously start to affect the fishing industry because of the loss of income for the sector.

The fishing industry in Malaga fears that if the limits proposed by Brussels are introduced, many owners of fishing boats could be forced to scrap their vessels, and that would seriously affect the quantity of fresh fish available on the coast.

The president of the provincial Fishing Federation, Miguel Ángel Carmona, says the new limits would also be the death of the local trawling sector, and if boats are scrapped unemployment will rise.

Another change faced by the fishing sector in the near future is related to bivalve molluscs. The Junta de Andalucía is working on a decree which will mean that all types of clam and mussels will have to be cleaned before being offered for sale. This will be obligatory once the decree comes into force, and the cleaning will have to be done at least one day before selling the shellfish for human consumption.

The fishing industry is hoping that the Junta will pay for the cleaning, bearing in mind that the deterioration of the water quality is the result of discharges from the land into the sea.

They are also hoping that the regional government will not prohibit the fishing of bivalve molluscs anywhere off the coast of the province.