The Barceloneta has long held the reputation of an old fishing district, its men going out to sea the way their fathers did and their fathers’ fathers before them. The very names of the streets — Atlantis Street, Sea Street, Salt Streetor Admiral Cervera Street — give the neighbourhood a decidedly maritime air, even besides the plethora of seafood restaurants and the garlands of sardines that festoon its squares and lanes come Christmas. But where are the fishermen, one might ask? Are any still left here in the Barceloneta of the twenty-first century? Your City decided to have a look around, to spend a day in their hidden world
Walk down the Passeig de Joan de Borbó, but instead of turning left towards the beach, take a right. You’ll find yourself at the gates of Barcelona’s fishing port. Passing the gate, you enter an otherworldly place that seems far removed from Barcelona’s trendy bars, hordes of tourist, municipal wi-fi networks, instagram hashtags and the debate on the merits of electric city transport. It is a world of hard-faced men, their jerseys carrying the stains of a year or more of work (something no one pays any mind here). They mend their nets by hand, unload heavy boxes of fish from their red or green boats, or just sit there in silence, cigarette in the hand, eyes fixed on the horizon.
This part of the port is also home to the Barceloneta fishermen’s guild. The guild’s President, José Juárez, is already waiting for us. He starts with the history of the organization — if anyone can tell us about that, this is the man. Back in the 1400s, there was no Barceloneta; the fishermen who had lived in the city since its origins had their homes in the La Ribera neighbourhood. The guild was more than just a professional union then, it was of a fraternity whose members would always come to one another’s aid. Everyone contributed to a common fund that was used to support families that lost their breadwinners at sea or to provide medical care to people injured in the line of work. It was the fishermen’s guild, alongside the stevedores, that built Santa Maria del Mar, that great church that, as José puts it, “will always remind people just how important the sea is to Barcelona.”
How can you choose another trade when you start helping your dad and granddad unload the catch and stow the nets at the age of seven?
The Barceloneta was built in the late 1700s when the fishing industry in the city was at its peak. At the time, membership in the guild stood at about three thousand — today, they number just three hundred and seventy. Mr. Juéarez explains that these include not only the fishermen themselves, but also dockers, wholesale market workers and some administrative staff. Most of their families have been in this business for at least three or four generations. José himself can trace his family back to his great-grandfathers on both his mother’s and his father’s side — all fishermen. And how can you choose another trade when you start helping your dad and granddad unload the catch and stow the nets at the age of seven, clean the boat at ten and first put out to sea yourself when you’re only fifteen? The job comes with a lot of hard work, and there’s an unavoidable bit of romance to it, too. It isn’t the kind of job you choose — it’s a job that chooses you.
José may be the president of the guild, but he does a lot more than office work. He goes out to sea almost every night. “My working day starts at 9 p. m., when I get to the port, change and go up on deck,” he says. “We put out to sea, but we stick close to the shore, so that Barcelona is clearly visible, and we use the lights up on Tibidabo (a mountain overlooking Barcelona) for navigation. We have GPS, of course. But the old way is somehow easier. All in all, we sail out for an hour and a half or so. At night we fish for sardines and anchovies. They love the light, so all you have to do is point a powerful searchlight into the water and watch as a whole school of fish swims up. Then we just cast the net and haul it in. Of course, there are bad nights when we come back home empty-handed, too. But, well, what can you do? In our line of work there’s good luck and there’s bad luck. On the way back I try to catch a nap, because I know when we get in I’ll have to unload the fish first and then I’ll still have to go take a shower, change and go to my office to take care of administrative work, listen to complaints and talk to boat owners. A few times I had to go to Madrid first thing in the morning and then come back and put straight out to sea. But even on the best of days don’t get home before three in the afternoon.”
Of course, there are bad nights when we come back home empty-handed, too. But, well, what can you do?
It’s is a stressful schedule, but there is a slight reprieve between early January and midFebruary. “We try to treat nature with the utmost respect,” José says. “So for a few years now we’ve stopped fishing at night during this period now to let the fish breed and recover. We only get part-time pay during that time and nobody really forces us to do it. But this profession is not just a business, it’s not all about money. I want to leave behind something my grandsons will be able to carry on.” So far, José only has one grandson, a boy of eight who’s so excited every time he gets to go out to sea it’s like a wonderful gift. But will he continue the family tradition? We asked Cristina, José’s daughter, who happens to work at the guild office and also leads tours around the port. “I don’t really know yet. But if my son does learn this trade, it would something really invaluable. Both for the family and for himself, no matter what he chooses to do in his life,” she says.
Like her father, Cristina literally grew up at the port, where she knows and loves every nook and cranny. She’s also very concerned about its long-term survival. “We’re fighting to get our old building renovated, we’ve been working out of temporary space for four years now. The market where the fish are auctioned badly needs repair, too — it’s in really bad shape.” As we talk, we enter the Torre del Reloj, the clock tower that once served as a beacon for Barcelona’s fishermen and is now the symbol of the fishing port. The view from the top is beautiful and from here you can suddenly see that those million-euro yachts bobbing in the waves, named for their owners’ wives and daughters, and the simple little fishing boats are neighbours after all. “Do you have any idea how much the mooring fees are here?” Cristina asks. The question is almost rhetorical. “We have to fight for every inch of a harbor that was historically ours and ours alone. The current arrangement is that everything from the tower to the end of the wharf is for the fishermen. At least we have that.”
The fish is sold off in a Dutch auction, meaning that the auctioneer opens with a high asking price. The figures on the screen continually change as the price gets lower until someone decides to take the deal
It is half past four now, high time we went to the Barceloneta’s fish market. The dilapidated six-sided structure hosts auctions twice a day, in the morning and in late afternoon, as the boats come in after the night or day shifts at sea. The fishermen sort their catch by size and type on board their boats. Octopuses and cuttlefish go into separate boxes. The most prized species are the blue and red shrimp because of how small their populations are. These can retail for over one hundred euros. Dockers then whisk the catch away on flatbed trolleys to the auction. The open boxes are put on a conveyor belt, their contents clearly visible to prospective buyers in tiered seating. Most of them work for wholesale companies, but there are chefs from Barcelona restaurants and fishmongers, too. The fish is sold off in a Dutch auction, meaning that the auctioneer opens with a high asking price. The figures on the screen continually change as the price gets lower until someone decides to take the deal.
A box of octopuses can be had for three euros whereas the same anchovies that cost six or seven euros per kilo at market fetch just thirty or forty cents. Another new friend, a young fisherman named Sergio, confirms our guess. “You don’t get rich quick doing this. But I don’t want to do anything else. My brother, he’s a trained economist, with a diploma and everything, and look, he lost his job in the crisis and came to work here. And now he can’t even imagine taking a different job.”
We leave the port at sunset. As we cross the center of town with its bars and coffeehouses, we can’t help but look at all those hipsters trying to look both tough and poetic and think about Sergio and his mates who look that way without trying, just something they get from their fathers, from the sea and the salt breeze. Just yesterday their world seemed a fantasy out of Hemingway, but now it feels far more real than our ordinary real life.