Exposure

Spain’s 3,000-Year-Old Tuna Harvest

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Photo: Mike Magers
Atlantic bluefin tuna are among the most hunted species on the planet and one of the best ways to see the effects of an increasingly industrialized food chain. But for a few short weeks during early summer on Spain’s southern coast, an ancient ritual known as the almadraba still plays out—an intense, intimate, and violent tradition that strives to harvest some of the world's most valuable seafood in a sustainable manner.

Photographer Michael Magers traveled to Spain in 2015 to join a small crew of fisherman in the economically depressed town of Barbate and document the spectacle.
Photo: Mike Magers
I’ve come to the small town of Barbate on the tail end of an epic monthlong road trip exploring Spanish food culture with Matt Goulding, award-winning author and co-founder of Roads and Kingdoms, for his book Grape, Olive, Pig. Along the way, we’ve had to reconcile the brutal and delicious realities of the food chain in many forms, but none so visceral as what brought us this far south: the almadraba. This annual tuna hunt preserves a 3,000-year-old Phoenician tradition pitting man against fish in what could easily be described as an aquatic version of Pamplona’s running of the bulls.
Photo: Mike Magers
Any discussion of tuna, from the redolent fatty goodness of toro (belly) served at the sushi temples of Tokyo to the cat food–like tins of “Chicken of the Sea” must first confront the depressing reality that Atlantic bluefin are one of the most overfished species on the planet. By some estimates, their population has declined more than 95 percent from its original and healthy size. Yet demand keeps growing. Subsistence fishermen have been replaced by corporate armadas employing modern vessels, multimillion-dollar tracking systems, and airborne spotters to hunt down tuna at their optimum breeding time, only then to use dragnets that clear the sea with the efficiency of a Dyson vacuum. None of this is surprising considering the economics—prime bluefin can command eye-popping prices in buying hubs like Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market. In 2013, for example, the owner of a Japanese sushi chain paid roughly $1.76 million for the year’s first bluefin, which weighed 489 pounds.
Photo: Mike Magers
While the food chain continues to industrialize, there are still pockets of the world employing ancient and more sustainable methods, and the almadraba is one of these. In fact, according to a 2015 report by the European Parliament’s Committee on Fisheries, this traditional labor-intensive approach is one of the least destructive available. Unlike purse seine methods, the almadraba’s intricate maze of nets (a design largely unchanged from the Phoenician days) results in very little bycatch—smaller fish and younger tuna slip through unharmed. It’s also a highly targeted approach. The fisherman are exclusively after migratory adult fish at a specific time of year, which helps eliminate bycatch of smaller fish and even larger animals like whales and dolphins.
Photo: Mike Magers
Dawn on the southern Spanish coast, even in late spring, is colder than one might expect. The crew of the Bermudez stands huddled against the early morning chill, smoking in silence under the rising light as we steam toward the hunting grounds. As they’ve done for 3,000 years, the fishermen deploy a maze of nets in the tuna's migratory path through the Mediterranean, ultimately leading them to an enclosed central area, where the fisherman await.
Photo: Mike Magers
Aboard the Bermudez, the sun is slowly warming the decks as we near the hunting grounds. The youngest members of the group, the divers, slip into neoprene suits to head below the waves and scout the nets. The day’s hunt can easily be scuttled by a lack of tuna in the maze or heavy seas—any number of reasons that reduce the economic opportunity for these men already working under a short six-week time window. Fortunately, today looks good, the divers report the maze is full, and the crew becomes noticeably more talkative, flashing smiles.
Photo: Mike Magers
On the captain’s signal, the boats form into a corral, roughly 300 feet apart, known as the cuadra. The men assemble at the nets, pulling, heaving, and shouting as the walls slowly slide closer together and the whole system is pulled upward. Without warning, the sea goes from dead calm to absolutely boiling—bluefin break the surface in a crush of panic, thrashing and jumping while the space between the boats shrinks by the minute.
Photo: Mike Magers
When the four boats that make up the cuadra are within feet of each other, the scene turns to chaos. A small group of men jump into the nets, now a stew of huge fish, some dead from concussions after impact with other fish, but others still thrashing. I position myself as close to the action as possible and am quickly soaked from head to toe in seawater and tuna blood as 1,000-pound monsters—bulls armed with sharp spines and snapping tails—pound the water in this narrow canal.
Photo: Mike Magers
The men shout, laugh, and scream as they rope the huge fish by their tails to hoist them onto a waiting refrigeration boat. Those fish still alive once on board will be quickly killed by driving a knife through the gills. It is a brutal ballet.
Photo: Mike Magers
On this day, about 150 fish are on board, a great and profitable number for a short and hardly predictable fishing season. Southern Spain has famously high unemployments rates, and most of the men, including Rafa, pictured here, work other jobs in town when the tuna aren’t on the move.
Photo: Mike Magers
By late morning, the hunt is over and the boats turn back for Barbate. Men strip off their gear and languish on deck, smoking and laughing in the warm sun. The next stop is the slaughterhouse, where the fish will be broken down, carved, and flash-frozen.
Photo: Mike Magers
While the almadraba remains one of the most sustainable and eco-friendly commercial fishing operations on the planet, it still reflects the challenge transparency brings to the food chain. Profit-motivated businesses seldom make sound long-term decisions, and lovers of good food must increasingly weigh sourcing alongside taste. Currently, the global demand for tuna is keeping every operation around the world in business.

I’m told up to 80 percent of the day’s catch may end up in Japan. It seems like a rather sterile and unceremonious end after the intimate nature of this morning’s battle—it may not have been a fair fight, but it was a fight nonetheless. But then again, no one ever asks about the bulls after the matador’s left the arena.
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