Photo by Rafel Royes Lopez
Barcelona's fishing port
It’s hard to remember that Barcelona was once just a modest fishing port—at least until taking a walk in the area tucked away over by the clock tower, across the water from the back of Maremagnum. The grimy docks there, covered in fish scales and netting, are where fishermen toil, as they have for centuries, in one of the few quintessentially working-class areas left in the centre of Barcelona. This year, work will begin on giving the docks a facelift similar to the one the 1992 Olympic Games brought to the rest of Port Vell and the Olympic port. Over the next few years, Barcelona’s fishing docks will be completely transformed into a modern port, but also somewhere both residents and tourists can enjoy. A fish market, restaurant and 21st-century docking facilities will make Barcelona’s fishermen the envy of the Mediterranean—at least while the fish stocks last.
“Ask anyone in Barcelona where the fishing docks are and they’d be hard pressed to tell you, even those that have lived here a long time,” said Pedro Jorquera, the president of Barcelona’s Cofradía de Pescadores (Fisherman’s Guild). “It’s simply an area that people don’t go to, or even know about. This project will put the docks firmly on the map by making it a place where people can relax, take a walk, buy and eat fresh fish, as well as watch fishermen at work. The docks will become another part of Barcelona where people can spend time and savour the atmosphere.”
Of course, making the docks a more pleasant place is only half of the equation. The main aim is to improve the facilities, especially for larger trawlers. Amongst the plans is a huge ice manufacturing plant capable of producing 800 tons a day, a galley and walkway where people can stroll through and observe the docks, extensive parking facilities, a fish auction, new offices, a restaurant and state-of-the-art docking facilities. Although long overdue, the renovation plans have been finally prompted by the rising land prices around Barcelona. The huge economic and leisure potential of the area is set to be realised, symbolised by the Fisherman’s Guild’s recent decision to lease its old headquarters to a hotel. The trendy Hotel 54, with views of the sea and port area, will command rates of up to €180 a night—not bad in an area where the average wage of a fisherman is little more than that per week. “Developers are really starting to covet this area,” says Jorquera. “It’s been neglected for a long time but now people have seen its potential with sea views, close proximity to the centre, beaches, etc.”
So far, €5 million have been earmarked for the development, two-thirds provided by Barcelona Port Authority, and the rest by the EU and the Fisherman’s Guild. The project is also essential to protect the future of the industry, according to Port Authority spokesperson Helena Belmonte. “Part of the aim of this plan is to guarantee the sustainability of the fishing industry around the port,” she said. “The Mediterranean sea has been affected by environmental problems that mean the smaller vessels are not economically viable anymore. Fishing hauls are decreasing and with the new technology this development will bring, the aim is to help encourage bigger boats, reducing smaller fishing fleets by a third and almost halving the number of fishermen working here over the next 15 years.”
Although many fishermen are nearing retirement age—the industry is finding it increasingly hard to encourage young workers—the casualties of the modernisation plans will receive some support from the Generalitat. They will be cushioned with a €2.7 million subsidy plan, as well as grants and loans to enlarge their vessels or fleets to take advantage of the economies of scale offered by the new facilities. Fishermen over 55 will also be offered early retirement packages and those that don’t want to retire will be offered assistance finding alternative work.
Ironically, however, many fishermen and maritime research organisations blame the dwindling fish stocks that have affected the industry on the construction projects that have already taken place to modernise Barcelona’s coast. Dredging in particular—the removal and disturbance of mud, rocks, sand and other sediments from the seabed—has proved disastrous for fish stocks. “This used to be a very rich fishing area but with the dredgers disturbing the seabed and in the absence of clean water, the fish are going to other waters or further out where only the bigger boats can find them,” Pedro Jorquera told Metropolitan. “Years ago we were even able to catch lobsters beneath the entry and exit to the docks—now that’s impossible. The result is that the fish are moving further away from the coast, going further out to sea, so only the bigger vessels can catch decent hauls and remain profitable.”
Changes made to the mouth of the River Llobregat have also had an effect on the amount and species of fish reaching the sea. The Institute of Marine Sciences, the Department of Marine Resources and the Department of Renewable Marine Geology are all united in claiming that these man-made changes are affecting stocks. They issued a joint report in 2004 concluding: “There has been a gradual reduction in shipping vessels since 1992, with the fishing grounds located around the mouth of the Llobregat river the most affected, especially due to the construction of the dam to the south.”
The report found that some species of fish and shellfish have already been lost entirely from the surrounding waters, and concluded, “Given the biological characteristics and the requirements for the critical habitat of such species, it is not expected that they will regenerate in the future.”
Meanwhile, other common species such as clams, sole, octopus, cuttlefish and monkfish have suffered a sharp decline. The report highlighted development work at the port as one of the primary factors negatively affecting species.
A retired 65-year-old fisherman who asked to be called Alberto, said he welcomes the changes ahead but, like many, questions their logic and fears for the long-term future of the industry. “The fact that they’re introducing new facilities is good. But it’s mainly going to benefit the big boys and the irony is, the seas are already over-fished. The fishing industry is already unsustainable—there are few young people joining, catches are going down, but so are prices, leading to over-fishing of the Mediterranean. It’s all very well introducing new flashy facilities that enable ships to catch bigger hauls but, eventually, there’s going to be nothing left to catch. In any industry, big business often talks about ‘economic sustainability’, but they never talk seriously about environmental sustainability. In the end, without one you just can’t have the other but they don’t seem to make that connection in their short-term profit driven view of the world.”
The message seems to be say goodbye to Barcelona’s current fishing fleet and its port, and when the new docks are finally finished, enjoy them while they last.
First published February 2008.