Fishing professionals share their thoughts about how to eat sustainable fish in Barcelona

We went to Barcelona's Pier and to the Llotja de Barcelona, the city's wholesale fish market, to talk to a skipper, a fisherman and a fishmonger about their work at sea, at the port and the market, respectively.

30/08/2023 - 12:51 h - Commerce and markets Ajuntament de Barcelona

The people who catch and sell the fish we eat explained the best way to put sustainable fish on our tables. Today, we chatted to Cristina Caparrós, a boat owner and chair of the Cap a Mar association who also heads the Platjeta project; the Mercat de les Corts fishmonger and sustainable fish expert Montse Millán; and José Cabrera, a retired fisherman, skipper and boat owner.

Cristina Caparrós, a leader in the promotion of seasonal fish

We met Cristina at the Pier. This slim and energetic 42-year-old woman currently runs La Platjeta, an online platform that takes fish from the boats of Barcelona’s fishermen to the city’s homes, restaurants, schools and consumer cooperatives, among others. The platform sells and promotes fresh and seasonal local fish with fishermen’s direct social engagement: “We don’t keep stocks or any fish from the previous day. In addition, we inform the public about the world of fishing,” explained Cristina.

La Platjeta, whose spelling with a “j” rather than a “g” is a reference to the peculiar speech of the La Barceloneta ancestors who caught fish directly at the city’s “platjjja”, was founded 15 years ago and is already a point of reference in Barcelona. This family sells fish on its website or by sending WhatsApp messages with two distinct options: you can either buy a fixed basket with a balanced selection of seasonal white fish, fatty fish, cephalopods and seafood (whole or clean, packed in biodegradable bags) or buy your fish à la carte, benefiting from greater selection. However, as well as selling, they act as an information point of sorts: “Our website and social media provide regular information on seasonal fish. We want to provide a channel that publishes accurate information about what is going on at local piers,” explained Caparrós.

La Platjeta is a great project for putting sustainable fish on people’s tables, but they are aware that they are not alone: “We’re not trying to compete with fishmongers. Buy fish at your local shops or markets! However, a good way to know if the fish you find there is sustainable is to check the labels and see whether you can find the species mentioned in our information channels at the places where you do your shopping. So, for example, if you can find forkbeard and horse mackerel, you know your fishmonger is buying their produce at the wholesale market. However, if you can only see large and white cuttlefish, salmon and tuna, that’s not sustainable,” explained the leader of La Platjeta. “If we want to buy sustainably and responsibly, we must ask about everything. Encouraging fishmongers to become responsible is also up to consumers,” asserted Cristina forcefully.

La Platjeta also informs the public about the world of fishing and the sea. Among other projects in the La Barceloneta neighbourhood and beyond, they allow members of the public to visit the Llotja de Barcelona at 4 pm on weekdays, with prior notice. It is a tour for schools and other groups, which they provide based on their belief that people should consider the Pier part of the city: “In order to ensure we don’t disappear, we need to be seen,” asserted Caparrós as she bade us goodbye and walked emphatically towards the Pier’s huts.

Montse Millán, the sustainable fishmonger of Les Corts

With her “La Barqueta” sustainable fish stall at the Mercat de les Corts, Montse is a benchmark among the city’s fishmongers: fish is in her blood.

“I started working as a fishmonger at my family’s fish stall at the Mercat del Ninot when I was 14. However, when my parents retired, I was still too young to run a fishmonger, and I didn’t feel up to it,” she explained. After working as an assistant at another fishmonger’s, she managed the fish department of a Caprabo supermarket for 15 years. “However, when my daughters were born, I was stripped of my management role. That’s when I decided that the supermarket wasn’t for me and that I wanted to go back to the good treatment I’d enjoyed at the market,” explained Millán. Montse’s neighbour, who ran a butcher’s at the Mercat de Les Corts, knew a fishmonger looking for staff. This is how Montse donned her market fishmonger’s apron once again. Her boss really appreciated Montse’s interest and enthusiasm for his fish business when his wife got ill and died, so he sold it to her.

“I’ve been running the fish stall for six years now. To start with, I bought my fish at Mercabarna, just like my boss used to do, but then the issue with the prawns started to get to me: – they added sulphites, the prawns never weighed as much as they claimed they did, you got smaller sizes than you were paying for, and so on. So, after doing a bit of research into where I could make better purchases, I registered as a buyer at the Llotja de Barcelona. I initially bought only prawns and lobster, and then I started to gradually add other species. I didn’t have to get up as early as before and could buy my fish without intermediaries. However, bans started to be imposed in Barcelona, so I had to start looking for other markets: I was going to the Blanes wholesale market two or three days a week. That’s when I discovered online shopping and a whole new world opened up to me. Now, I buy online at the wholesale markets of Badalona, L’Ametlla de Mar, Blanes and Roses. And I go to the Llotja de Barcelona in person. But there’s very little variety and very few boats here. This means that, in order to have local fish every day, I have to buy my produce from several different places,” explained the fishmonger.

As well as working at the Mercat de les Corts, Montse also sells her wares to a local restaurant, to the market’s own bar and to four Gràcia neighbourhood consumer cooperatives based at the Ateneu Rosa de Foc. She sells them baskets of fish caught by drift netting (an artisanal fishing technique carried out from a small boat) at a fixed price. “These are not very commercial types of fish, but they’re both very worthy and very economical,” stated Millán.

When asked what eating sustainable fish means to her, Montse replied: “Eating fish caught by family businesses from small boats in the Mediterranean. And the only way to do this is to check the labels and ask what port the fish came from, where it came from, when it was caught, what boat it was caught in, and what fish it is. And she reminded us that the answers to all these questions must, by law, be stated on every label. So next time you’re at the fishmonger’s, at the market or even at the supermarket, you should not be afraid to ask. “Product traceability is mandatory for all traders,” she pointed out. She also insisted that: “People must get used to trying new things beyond what they’re used to. There are other very economical types of fish caught near us in the Mediterranean and bought from wholesale markets.”

José Cabrera, one of the last skippers in la Barceloneta

José insisted on conducting this interview over breakfast in la Barceloneta, where he lives just 50 metres from the sea and where he has worked his whole life and wants to continue living. This is a neighbourhood he loves and of which he spoke proudly while we each tackled a large sandwich for breakfast as if we were about to go out on our boat, surrounded by all the tourists you can now find at the pier, far outnumbering the fishermen.

José is a 65-year-old retired fisherman, skipper and boat owner. He was born in Castell de Ferro, a small seaside town in Granada, but he moved to Barcelona with his parents when he was 13, along with other people from his town who settled in the same neighbourhood. Like many other families from Andalusia, they were looking for work and quality of life. Despite his parents’ opposition, José, son and grandson of fishermen, entered the trade at the age of 17: “I started in the light boat (a structure carrying the lights used to fish in shoals of sardines using the purse seine fishing technique) of my father’s boat, where I worked all night in the cold,” explained José.

The family business thrived over the years, with 48 employees at its peak. However, fishermen retire earlier than those in other trades, partly because it is such a hard occupation: “My brother (who also worked in the business) retired at 60, and I followed suit not long after. The business is now run by my two nephews, my son and 24 other crew members,” explained Cabrera.

“Purse seine fishing boats catch sardines, European anchovies, horse mackerel, Atlantic mackerel and bogue. Catching gilthead bream, white bream and pandora is now only allowed between 15 July and 15 November, which means they have become seasonal. The skipper explained that, according to regulations, purse seine fishing is the most selective fishing technique in the sea, because the fish have a chance to get away.” When asked where his boats are now, he explained that they have gone to the coast of Blanes. “We usually go from Tarragona to the Bay of Roses, but some boats can go as far as Alicante,” he noted.

We finished with another obligatory question: What do we need to do to move towards a more sustainable fish consumption model? “We need a fish culture,” asserted José: “In Catalonia, we don’t know how to get the most out of our fish. For example, horse mackerel is a delicacy in Andalusia, whereas here, people don’t appreciate it. We need to inform people and help them learn about the world of the sea so that they know that there are fishermen here and that fresh fish is the best fish there is.”

José also wants more commitment from fishmongers: “We are required to label our produce. We include information on the date the fish was caught, the species and the area where it was caught. But you can’t find this information at fishmongers.” And from the government too: “Fish needs to be promoted: a lot of work has gone into promoting Palamós prawns and Tarragona sardines, but the same prawns and the same sardines can be found here in Barcelona. Maybe it’s our own fault for not promoting them more.”

Cabrera is very concerned about the possibility of Barcelona’s fishermen disappearing altogether, partly – he explained – as a result of very high bureaucracy and training demands and obstacles (such as fishing bans) and partly due to a lack of generational handover. “The Catalan government minister, for example, is yet to visit the Port of Barcelona. And we need politicians to ask about us and our needs. Now, they’re building us a new wholesale market, but what’s the point if there are no fishermen left? There are only 180 fishermen left in Barcelona, and almost all skippers and boat owners are over 50. If a fisherman retires at 60, what will happen to all these boats?” wondered this skipper who, although now retired, still cares deeply about his pier and about an occupation that has been a part of him his entire life.

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