Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Formerly Quaint: Mallorca's fishermen

"Quaint fishing village." This is a description beloved of the brochure talkers and of the website traders in cliché. The description is at its most clichéd when it refers to yesteryear and is prefaced with "formerly a". It is at its most inaccurate when it insists that the quaint fishing village still exists. The fishing villages are all former. There is no such thing as a quaint fishing village in Mallorca any longer.

Old photos from the turn of the last century will confirm the one-time evidence of this quaintness and of the fishermen's trade. The quaintness persisted for many a decade. The 1960s did for it. Coastal settlements which could once legitimately claim such quaintness had it concreted over and turned into a living but dying museum piece amidst the rush towards so-called "balearisation", a term of inherent contradiction as it alludes to an orgy of construction that was simultaneously de-construction. Can Picafort was once a quaint fishing village. Even Magalluf has been described thus (less accurately as there were barely enough dwellings to constitute a tiny hamlet let alone a village).

The old-timer fishermen now long into retirement are honoured annually at fiestas to celebrate Sant Pere, aka Saint Peter, the patron saint of fishermen. These ancients of the sea accompany the image of the saint to the water's edge and watch misty-eyed as it floats and bobs on the bay as though it were in supplication for a return to the days of quaintness, abundance and simplicity.

Last year, they held a secondhand fair in Puerto Pollensa. Its purpose was to assist in raising funds for the local fishermen. The "confraria" (brotherhood or perhaps guild) of fishermen had been stung by changes to ways in which charges were made for storage. Some fishermen were having to consider giving up.

In 2011, the fishermen in Puerto Alcúdia pulled out of the resort's annual boat and sepia fair. They objected to restaurants buying sepia at lower cost from wholesalers and then using it during the fair. They argued that their traditional catch, part of the reason for the fair in the first place, should be honoured and so paid for.

These two examples are just two of many which have become the fishermen's lot in more recent times. Costs, competition, quotas, EU inspectors, decline in boatbuilding, trawling, recreational fishing - they have all conspired to make the fishermen's lot a less than happy one. Quaintness was never this complicated.  

At the time in 2012 that the controversy in Puerto Pollensa started to brew over storage charges, the brotherhood was celebrating its centenary. It comprised twenty-two members; the number may now be lower. There are ten brotherhoods around the coast of Mallorca. The total number of professional fishermen who belong to them is 400, and their number is declining along with the number of boats.

It is difficult to place a number on how many fishermen there once were, but as an indication, in 1940 there were over 1,500 boats in the Balearics, the majority of them in Mallorca. As there are nowadays said to be only 190 boats supporting 400 fishermen, one can guess that there were at least 3,000 fishermen in 1940, over a half of them in Mallorca. By 1986, a census of fishermen and of types of boat and types of fishing gave some hard data. In Mallorca there were 1,052 fishermen, a third of them based in Palma, and with Cala Ratjada and Colonia Sant Jordi having been numbers two and three on the list respectively (there were only 26 fishermen in Puerto Pollensa even then).

For twenty years, the fisherman population was in slow decline, but then came economic crisis and a hastening of this decline. Since 2010, the number of boats in Mallorca has been reduced by a quarter to the 190 there are today.

By contrast with this fall, there are now over 50,000 licences for recreational fishing in the Balearics. It might be thought that recreational activity wouldn't affect the professional fisherman, but it does in terms of reducing stock. Moreover, there are reckoned to be at least an equivalent number of unlicensed fishermen to the 400 brotherhood members.

The condition of the Mallorcan fisherman is not terminal but equally it isn't very healthy. The new (and first) Balearics fishing law will permit fishermen to legally be able to take tourists - up to four or five at a time - on fishing trips. It is a move which might offer some salvation through diversification, though as yet the legal niceties are not all known, such as those to do with liability and insurance: further costs therefore. Still, it is a step in the right direction, but one trusts that when it comes to the attention of the brochure talkers, they don't try and brand it as quaint.

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