10 Facts about the ancient practice of Almadrabas

05 June 2017

Of the many meanings of the word “sustainable” nowadays, the art of red tuna fishing known as almadraba, encompasses each and every one of them because of the fact that over the thirty centuries during which it has been practised, it has succeeded in sustaining the world population of tuna without contributing to its decline in the wild, nor to the decline of the species in general. The causes of the overexploitation which has endangered the survival of tuna are the use of bad fishing practices and above all that of encircling them with nets. 

1.       The ancient art of Almadraba fishing 

There exist certain references from the VII century BC which refer to the commerce practised by the Phoenicians around the Mediterranean Sea (sea in the middle of land) involving products derived from tuna among other species, mainly salted. There is no doubt of their origin: Gadir/Gadeira (Cádiz), the Bay of Cádiz, from Gibraltar to Cape Saint Vincent. 

2.       Historic rights 

The earliest references which have come down to us are judicial documents from the hispano-arabic epoch (XIV century) and they give a name to this technique: “ar.madraba”. Later, administrative regulation became more detailed and more varied. The Royal Decree of 1817 definitively abolished the privileges of the aristocracy and granted concessions, through public tender, to the guilds of fishermen (Consorcio Nacional Almadrabero) of the eastern and western Mediterranean coasts. It also established the first regulations governing the fishing, and these were the precursors of the strict regulations in force in Spain today, such as the law of 29 October 2008.
The universal judicial principle “prior in tempore, potior in iure” (earlier in time, stronger in law) should be applied, and we Iberians were the first in Mare Nostrum to fish for the tuna. We must, however be aware of people’s historic rights, and those of the Spanish south Atlantic coast should demand respect for the exercise of their rights provided by their own legal framework, and for their almadraba nets for the fishing of red tuna. 

3.       Cultural heritage and way of life in the Almadraba villages 

Almadraba is not just an artful method of fishing. It is also a way of life for people and a livelihood for the many families who live off it, as well as being an important source of employment, not only in the fishing itself but also in the “auxiliary” industries of salting and canning. For those who live off the tuna, the Almadraba is a religion whose only rule is very simple: love tuna above all else. 

4.       Fishing the traditional artisan way, by hand 

The genius of Almadraba is a labyrinthine system of nets, into which the tuna are herded and trapped, and which are anchored to the coastal seabed to form various different shapes yet also connected to the land. Small floats keep the tops of the nets visible, marking out their positions, and they must be a minimum and maximum distance from the coast. The art depends on nets, anchors, ropes and boats whose design has changed little in centuries. It also depends on the weather, the skilled hands and astuteness of the fishermen, and good luck, nothing more. 

5.       Seasonal system 

The almadrabas are only installed seasonally, at the time when the shoals of red tuna head towards the Strait of Gibraltar and into the Mediterranean from the Atlantic in their annual migration which takes place at the end of spring. The Almadraba system does not alter their natural routes nor change their habits or life cycle and does not interfere with their habitat, their growth or later reproduction. There is an annual ban on fishing to conserve stocks. 

6.       Natural selective fishing 

There is a sort of natural selection in the fish which are caught. There can be no provocation, driving or attraction possible with tuna, not even lures or deception: those which find themselves in the nets do so purely by chance, only a tiny percentage of the fish in the shoal stray towards the coast randomly. It is a sort of natural self-regulation. 

7.       Controlled Capture 

With the almadrabas being connected to the land and always in the same place, it is simple for the authorities to exercise control and fishermen must have full administrative authorisation for the position and setup of their nets. It is impossible to avoid official vigilance and strict compliance with the conditions under which they are authorised. More important still is the supervision of the number of fish caught, or quota, and their minimum size. This makes it illegal to catch fish of over 150 kilos in almadrabas allowing them to reach sexual maturity and to reproduce. 

8.       The difference between Almadraba and other practices 

Other methods, above all that of encircling, are massive, aggressive and damaging systems of extraction, fishing which is indiscriminate, industrialised, savage and uncivilised and supported by technology which can locate illegal shoals, thus depleting stocks and impeding the reproduction and continuity of the species. On the other side is the collective alliance of the almadrabas, ecologists and scientists who managed in 2006 to get the European Parliament to approve protective measures such as extending the duration of the ban, raising the minimum weight, quotas and improved observation and control. While that has served to make the abuses more difficult, it has not managed to stop the encircling method endangering the species. 

9.       Minimum suffering in the death of Almadraba tuna 

The slaughterhouse is the sad scene of the bleeding of the fish, necessary for it to be eaten and for the quality of the meat. This is done in the most civilised way possible to avoid any unnecessary suffering. The Almadraba fish are loaded on board using ropes and cranes now, instead of hooks. 

10.   Slow fish: good clean and fair 

Almadraba is good being a kind of fishing which is not aggressive or massive or indiscriminate, but rather legal, selective, fortuitous, respectful of the species and the survival of the younger fish with its life cycle and migratory customs. Almadraba is clean, it is not contaminating, invasive or disrespectful to the environment, and as a natural method, it needs no fancy technology but instead uses simple artisan techniques. Almadraba is fair, not knowing in advance the amount of fish to be caught, not being a “massive production” system, being less than 2% of world production, being an ancestral and traditional form of fishing and a way of life for people, based on historic rights of vital social importance. All these reasons bring us to one round conclusion: the absolute sustainability of the art of Almadraba fishing.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of El Consejo Regulador.
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