As conservationists fight to keep the bluefin tuna alive, a Spanish fishing tradition that dates back to the time of the Phoenicians is endangered
Author Geoffrey Gray Photography Alvaro Leiva
When I ask Rafael Marquez if he would compare his vocation to that of a bullfighter, he scoffs and then recounts the time that the famous matador Jesulín de Ubrique visited him at the port of Barbate, a Spanish fishing village that sits just north of the Strait of Gibraltar, where, every spring, thousands of massive Atlantic bluefin tuna enter the Mediterranean to spawn.
As Marquez tells it, Ubrique had come to witness La Levantá del Atún (The Raising of the Tuna), part of the 3,000-year-old fishing tradition called almadraba, in which Marquez and his fellow almadraberos create a labyrinth of underwater nets for the fish to swim into as they approach the strait. When the fish reach the final net, or el copo, the almadraberos circle their boats and haul the baseball diamond–size net to just a few feet below the surface. The trapped tuna—some weighing more than 1,000 pounds and with tails longer than fishermen are tall—thrash wildly, making the water appear as if it has been brought to a boil. The copejadores then go about the treacherous job of entering the net and transferring as many tuna as they can onto their boats.
Now a third captain, Marquez suffered many injuries during his time as a copejador: a broken nose from colliding with one of the cranes used to hoist the fish, a broken knee from a tail that struck him underwater, a broken wrist from a tuna violently jerking its head after being gaffed by a hook. He tells me that when Ubrique observed him entering the net, the matador commented that it was a brave thing to do.
“Why don’t you come in?” Marquez said to him. “This is just like bullfighting.”
“No, no, no,” Ubrique protested. “The bull, I see him coming. Whereas these tuna are underwater and you don’t see where they are coming from.”
Marquez adds that “the bullfighter has only one bull to kill; we have 30 or 40 fish. And we don’t expect any applause.”
Wearing thick-soled boots and with spiky black hair, the 43-year-old fisherman has the good looks of a grittier Antonio Banderas and the swagger to match. In general, almadraberos are a proud lot. Theirs, after all, is not just a demanding and dangerous job, but a craft that goes back to the time of the Phoenicians. Marquez’s great-grandfather worked the copo—his grandfather and father too. For a while, Marquez ran an auto-detailing shop, content to work on land. But after the death of his father, Francisco—a tuna tail smacked him in the chest, knocking the life right out of him—the son instinctively headed for the boats.
For Marquez, it was important to keep the family tradition alive. “I am deeply in love with almadraba, for the same reasons as my father,” he says. “Because we know we’re working with something historical, and because we feel we are part of a brotherhood. My fellow almadraberos and I don’t just end up being partners; we go from partners to friends, to friends that link up as extended family.”
Today, however, that family is in danger of being torn apart—not that you’ll hear Marquez entertaining such thoughts. “Maybe I’m just one of those people who are always thinking positively,” he says. “I believe that the craft of the almadraba is going to pass on from generation to generation.”
Walk away from the port in Barbate, past the pale beach houses and up into the pine forest, and you will find yourself on a long, steep path. The path hugs craggy, striated cliffs and is dusted with sand and softened with needles from pines so round and fat they look like umbrellas. Up farther still stands the Tower of Tajo, a squat stone silo where, hundreds of years ago, scouts kept watch for invaders—and the big tuna run.
The boom years here—if they can be described as such—didn’t come about until the mid-1970s, when General Francisco Franco’s rule came to an end. The dictator’s restrictive regime had a debilitating effect on the country’s exports, and bluefin was no exception. It wasn’t until Franco was gone that tuna caught in the almadraba nets was sold to the fish markets in Japan, marking the point when the international rush began.
The Atlantic bluefin, or Thunnus thynnus, is popular due to its fantastically succulent meat, dubbed atún rojo for its deep red color. The Japanese regard it as the best fish for sashimi and consume roughly 80 percent of the world’s supply, while the Spanish credit the bluefin for turning the country’s southern coast into a destination for gastronomes.
The bluefin owes its reputation for flavor to excess body fat. In the cold waters of their Atlantic crossings, they feast and grow, taking on layers of fat to keep the blood warm as they swim east, often at speeds in excess of 30 miles an hour. When the fish reach the mouth of the Mediterranean, at Gibraltar, their fat content has reached its peak. The marbling, so to speak, yields meat that is so buttery, tender and rich that it wouldn’t be a stretch to compare it to Kobe beef. As a result, a single bluefin tuna can sell for six figures. During the first auction of 2013 at Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji market, one bluefin went for a record-breaking $1.8 million. Though the winning bid at this annual publicity stunt is more about the recognition it brings the successful bidder, it’s still indicative of a tuna market gone out of control.
“These fish are the diamonds of the sea,” says John Stieglitz, a marine biologist with the University of Miami who works on issues of sustainability surrounding the bluefin tuna. “Price per pound, there is nothing higher. A fisherman can get $30 a pound. Any other fish, you’re looking at single digits.”
Conservationists don’t begrudge the almadraberos the opportunity to make a living, but they argue that, if the pressure isn’t relieved on wild bluefin tuna, the species’ numbers will continue to decline. Currently, the population is just 10 percent of historic levels, which has led the International Union for Conservation of Nature to list the bluefin as endangered and regulating bodies to impose kill quotas on fisheries. The U.S., Japan and other major consumers of Atlantic bluefin tuna have refused to go so far as to list the species as endangered, but this past July, Mexico banned bluefin fishing for the remainder of the calendar year, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—which operates under the U.S. Department of Commerce—announced it was considering a similar ban in the Pacific.
For his part, Stieglitz takes a measured view. “By the numbers, the Atlantic bluefin look like they’re endangered, but this is a very resilient species,” he says. “With proper management, which includes quotas and support for aquaculture [or fish farms] that will take the pressure off of wild stocks, the population can bounce back. You don’t want to say to the almadraberos, ‘Sorry guys, but you gotta find another job to do.’ Besides, if you tell the almadraberos to stop, that won’t solve it. But they still need to adhere to quotas and support aquaculture. It’s like the death by a thousand cuts: If everyone in the world takes a little piece, in the end it collapses.”
Marquez understands how the quotas have helped the bluefin tuna population, and he is vigilant about telling his crew to throw juveniles back into the ocean. “We take good care of the tuna,” he says, arguing that the almadrabero has the same interest as the regulator. “We throw the small ones back because we know that after five or six years, after having spawned for five or six cycles, they will come back to us bigger, and having left behind a legacy of many more tuna.”
However, Marquez says, as the tuna stock bounces back, it’s only fair that the number of fish the almadraberos are allowed to catch should also be increased. “They froze our quota, but our cost of doing business—salaries, materials—has gone up, so we keep losing,” he says.
Many in the Spanish fishing industry say they are similarly struggling, despite evidence that the bluefin tuna stock is on the rise. In May of this year, a Spanish fishing fleet announced that it had met its 2,540-metric-ton quota in less than 48 hours, a record time that Juan Serrano, general director for Balfego—Spain’s largest bluefin supplier—says is proof that the bluefin stock is abundant.
“Environmental organizations must acknowledge now that stock levels are extremely healthy,” he told reporters at the time. “It is true that six years ago there was overexploitation, but not that bluefin tuna was approaching extinction.”
The Spanish government also hailed that record time as evidence that the stock had recovered, and in a statement said that it would lobby governing bodies to raise the quotas during a special meeting to be held on the matter next month in Genoa, Italy: “We hope all parties involved, from scientists to fishery management institutions to independent pro-sustainability organizations, will reach the right conclusions after this season.”
Meanwhile, Marquez remains hopeful that traditions as old as the Phoenicians aren’t destroyed so quickly. “We have coexisted with the ecosystem and the tuna for 3,000 years,” he says. “We can coexist for another 3,000. I hope they realize, the politicians in this case, that it’s something that needs to be kept alive. It’s something that, historically, is very important. Especially in our country. This is a monument, and we have to protect it.”
Later, I watch Marquez jump from the dock onto the bow of an almadraba boat with the same familiar ease of a man entering the front door of his own home. The engines are cranking, churning black smoke into the blue sky. Soon the ropes are pulled in and the boat heads out to sea. Below the surface of the water, the big fish are already there, circling.
Geoffrey Gray is a contributing editor at New York magazine and the author of the New York Times best-seller Skyjack: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper.