In the 1980s, Portugal and Spain were fishing 200,000 tons of sardines annually off the coast of the Iberian Peninsula. Overfishing, poor management of resources and the fragility of remaining stocks, caused by warming and acidification of ocean waters, led the traditional Portuguese fish to near collapse. In 2009, sardine stocks in Portugal fell below safe biological levels.
After warnings from scientists and environmentalists, governments took measures, and slowly, the sardine shoals began to recover, although they are still far below what they once were. In 2002, fishing of the species totaled 63,732 tons in Portugal, but has been falling until it hit 9,624 tons in 2018, according to the country's directorate general for natural resources, security and maritime services. Last year, after an upturn, it reached 26,000 tons.
"The sardine is very connected to Portuguese identity. It's a fish of the people. It was fished in large quantities, it was a symbol of abundance," says marine biologist Gonçalo Carvalho, executive coordinator of NGO Sciaena, and a specialist in fisheries
"Even today, it's still eaten a lot on the feasts of the saints, in June. For us, it's synonymous with summer. When the canning industry emerged, it was an important fish, with a lot of exports and job generation," adds Carvalho.
Portugal is among the three countries with the highest consumption of fish per capita, behind only Japan and Iceland, at around around 60 kg per person per year, of which 20 kg are cod and another third, salmon, tuna and prawns. The European average is 18 kg per capita.
"Today, we import two thirds of what we eat," Carvalho says. "And sardines aren't just for us and the fishermen. In the marine ecosystem, it is an important element, which feeds many species."
Overfishing and predatory practices were themes of the UN Conference on the Ocean, which took place last week in Lisbon. The European Union has a common fisheries policy and defines quotas between countries and types of fish. Portugal and Spain share between them the quota of sardines they can fish — the Portuguese have two thirds of the quota of the species.
Three years ago, 12 NGOs from Portugal and Spain sent a letter to the two governments asking for effective measures against the reduction of stocks, "proportional to the gravity of the situation". The document suggested that the governments establish quotas in accordance with scientific recommendations and adopt management based on science and traditional knowledge. They also recommended further combating illegal practices.
In Portugal, around 20,000 people work in sardine fishing or canning. Sandra Lázaro, a fisherwoman from Setúbal, a city an hour away from Lisbon, says that it is no longer possible to make a living. "The docks used to be full of boats," she says. "Today, if you have 50, it's too many."
Between 2014 and 2017, the government adopted more restrictive measures, limiting catch days and quantities per vessel. "In 2014, we saw the problems, and activity only lasted until September. We only caught 16,000 tons of sardines," says Teresa Coelho, secretary of state for fisheries at Portugal's Ministry of Agriculture. "It's in the fishermen's interest that fishing remains sustainable because their activity depends on it."
But for Gonçalo Carvalho, little has been learnt in this process. "We asked for another fish to be caught, but we encountered a lot of resistance," he says. "Human beings don't like change. It's our destiny. It's a fado," says Carvalho, referring to the traditional Portuguese genre of music which refer to feelings of fate and melancholy.
This story was produced as part of the 2022 UN Ocean Conference Fellowship organized by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network with support from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch). It was originally published in Portuguese in Valor Economico on July 2, 2022. It has been translated to English and lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: The average Portuguese consumes 60Kg of Fish every year / Credit: Zeshalyn Capindo via Flickr.