The Current Issue
Nikon Owner Issue 22
by Neil Lucas and Michael Bright
Dawn on a crisp April morning at a fishing harbour on southwest Spain. The aroma of cigarettes and coffee hide the smell of fish. Producer and photographer M+Neil Lucas leads a BBC film crew to witness a fishing tradition dating back 3,000 years.
In this most unusual article, we learn about an age-old and sustainable method of fishing tuna that has its origins in Phoenician times as Neil Lucas captures what well might be some of the last images of this particular livelihood to be caught on camera.
It was five o'clock on a crisp April morning when photographer and director Neil Lucas and a BBC film crew arrived at the fishing harbour of Barbate in southwest Spain. The aroma of cigarettes and coffee overwhelmed the prevailing smell of stale fish, and there was a chill in the air as fifty or so fishermen prepared to leave in a handful of brightly coloured fishing boats. The conversation was animated, as it often is in southern Europe, each man anticipating the day's fishing, but take away the diesel engines and ship-to-shore radio, and this could have been a scene from 3,000 years ago. These Spanish fishermen continue a tradition that has its origins in Phoenician times.
The fish they catch are tuna - bluefin tuna or tunny - the biggest and best tuna in the sea, and sought after the world over as the main ingredient in Japanese sushi and sashimi. The fish are worth about 10 euros per kilo to the Spanish fisherman but can reach astronomical prices - up to 50,000 euros for an exceptional fish - by the time they hit the markets in Japan, so the anxiety shows. What they catch during these few months determines how they will feed their families (or not) for the rest of the year.
The tuna swim in from the Atlantic to spawn in the Mediterranean Sea between March and June, and on this leg of their journey they do not feed. They also avoid the strong currents at the centre of the Straits of Gibraltar, preferring to swim close to the coast. This is the reason the fishery is here … and what a fishery it is!
Along this stretch of the shoreline, between Cadiz and Tarifa, fishermen deploy the 'almadraba', a gigantic labyrinth of heavy-duty nets anchored to the seabed about a kilometre offshore. In the recent past, many nets were set, but today, with tuna stocks declining, few survive, mainly out of fishing ports like Barbate, Conil de la Frontera and Zahara de los Atunes (meaning 'Zahara of the tunas').
Each net snakes out into the bay and is marked by a string of bright orange buoys that warn passing sea traffic of the hazard to navigation. The migrating tuna swim parallel to the coast and enter the maze, passing from chamber to chamber until they reach the main holding pen - the so-called 'killing chamber'. Every three or four days the fishermen head out to sea in order raise the net.
Often, the fishermen are not alone. The activity attracts small pods of killer whales. They mill around the entrance to the almadraba and sometimes chase the tuna into the funnel. Today, three pods, with a total of 26 whales, patrol this section of the Spanish coast. Occasionally, they can be troublesome. They chase the fish until they are exhausted, panicking them into a frenzy, so they damage themselves and the nets. It was this relationship between whales and humans that brought Neil and his film crew to the almadraba.
"We were there to film a sequence for an edition of the Natural World," recalls Neil, "and had to be up at the crack of dawn to check equipment and be ready before the fishing boats left port. The morning ritual was to drink coffee laced with condensed milk, but for some reason it still tasted salty - a really strange brew."
Film crew and fishermen crowded onto a couple of large fishing boats and as a golden sun rose into a cloudless sky they headed out to sea. The hour-and-a-half journey was uneventful; both fishermen and film crew catching up on the sleep they had been so cruelly deprived. When they reached the almadraba, they found the sea was littered with lines of brightly coloured buoys with smaller boats moored alongside. These mark the boundaries of the intricate maze of nets.
"The remarkable thing was that every man knew exactly where to go and what to do. They spread out across the raft of boats and waited, while we looked for the best vantage places to capture the day's events."
The entire day is worked like a military manoeuvre, following a pattern that has been adhered to for centuries. Before the nets are hauled up, a diver is sent down to inspect the number of fish in the trap. If there is sufficient, the net would be raised; if not, they all would go home. For everybody on the boats that day, the moment of truth had come.