Resistance on the river

photo: Bleak fish caught by Andrés in the Guadalquivir river at Coria del Río / ALEX TOWNE

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YOU DON’T NEED THE INTERNET to tell you that Spain is known for its seafood. Fried fish is a specialty in Andalusia, especially in cities with harbors like Cadiz, Malaga, and Seville. Because of its location on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, fishing is an important part of the Spanish economy. I wanted to see how people view this activity, one of the oldest forms of hunting and collecting food, in relation to Spain’s struggle for economic success in times of crisis.

I WENT TO A SMALL FISHING TOWN about 30 minutes outside of Seville to get a better idea. Coria del Río lies 15 kilometers south of the city and has 29,000 residents, small compared to Seville’s 702,000. It is situated directly next to the Guadalquivir River and has an abundance of fishing boats along its muddy shores. After arriving, and an encounter with a group of quarrelling old men, I was pointed in the direction of the fish vendors.

JUST A QUICK WALK FROM THE RIVER stood two fish merchants, each selling their own product. One sold fish, the other shrimp. I approached the man by the name of Andrés selling bleak fish, albur in Spanish. He looked rugged and hardworking standing in his waders with a slightly off-white shirt tucked into his trousers. He was reluctant to speak, but I eventually got him to answer a few questions. In front of him was a cart full of about 25 fish that had been caught that day. He told me a full cart of fish usually sells for about 80 to 90 Euros, but lately he has not been able to sell as many.

DUE TO THE ECONOMIC CRISIS, fish sales have steadily declined in Spain. Andrés normally only sells about one half to three quarters of fish, and the rest have to be thrown out. “Right now there’s a crisis, and there’s no sale,” he says. A man of few words, Andrés says in one sentence what fishermen in Spain have been pondering for the last few years. According to OECD’s economic profile of Spain, the annual growth of real value added through agriculture, forestry, and fishing was 7 percent in 2007, and the following year dropped to negative 2.7 percent, and has since buoyed between stagnancy and decline. Although it’s not visible from the surface, the problem is damaging to the Spanish economy. Just as invisible as the struggle the fisherman goes through every day to sell half of his catch. The problem is not with the fish themselves, but the lack of funding to buy them. It’s obvious that fish are popular in restaurants and tapas bars throughout Spain, but why does it matter if people cannot afford them?

SPAIN OFFICIALLY ENTERED A RECESSION in 2009 and has been struggling to recuperate ever since. Although the problem is clearly much larger than fishing, this sector still remains a vital part of the economy. According to Eurostat, in terms of tonnage the Spanish fishing fleet is by far the largest (415,000 gross tons) and is at least twice the size of the fleets in the United Kingdom, Italy, and France. The size of the Spanish fishing fleet is testament to its importance in culture and economy. But unemployment is at a record high in Spain as of April 2013, at 29.16 percent. Because of the inability to find work, people are struggling to keep the jobs they already have, including fishermen.

“THERE ARE A LOT OF PEOPLE who have to fish for food in Spain,” Luis Vega, a Sevillian fisherman, says. It’s a beautiful day, which means a lot of activity under the Triana Bridge in Seville. Luis wears a white sweatshirt and jeans to combat the foreboding shade from the bridge. When I ask Luis about the difficulties of fishing he says, “It’s all patience.” These words seem to perfectly define the mentality of a fisherman. Of all the people I talked to, not one seemed preoccupied by anything. Perhaps they should be, considering the current situation in Spain. You wouldn’t have any idea of the economic crisis when talking to people along the river based on their attitude.

ACCORDING TO LUIS AND OTHERS, the majority of the people who fish along the Guadalquivir do it for fun compared to those in Coria del Río. Luis Vega has been fishing for more than 15 years and now brings his son to fish as well, keeping with family tradition. He says that on a good day he will catch 12 to15 fish on the river in about 6 or 7 hours. But a lot of that depends on the pole and the skill of the fisherman, of which there seems to be a lot of variety. Everyone from little kids to old men fish along the Guadalquivir to escape and relax. Fishing for fun, not for work. It almost seems like a kind of release from reality, emblematic of something greater.

RIVERS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN A SYMBOL FOR DREAMS. The first civilizations were formed around bodies of water. The biggest cities in the world are near oceans, lakes, and rivers because people live off the land. They embody the city and the city embodies them. Seville, founded three thousand years ago by Phoenicians and other people because of its natural harbor, is no exception. Some of the most amazing sites in the city are along the Guadalquivir, where culture thrives. In a way, life is like a river. It starts as a small trickle and gradually grows into a larger body. It has a lot of ups and downs, but it always keeps flowing, and eventually ends at the ocean. In the words of the medieval Spanish poet Jorge Manrique, “Our lives are the rivers which come to the sea, which is to die” (“Nuestras vidas son los ríos que van a dar en la mar, que es el morir”).

FISHING is a lot more than just a manner of collecting food. It allows a person to escape from reality. After talking to various fishermen who fish for sport and for work, I think that fishing is indicative of the Andalusian mindset. Although there is economic crisis and unemployment is at a record high, people don’t dwell on it. When I asked Andrés if he had any dreams about his future, he only said that he would continue working. You would expect someone to say that they want to become rich, or move away to a better place, but something about fishermen is different. It’s hard not to admire Andrés’s dedica- tion to his job and to his love of fishing. If he is any indication of the community of fishermen around Seville, I think it’s safe to say the current is flowing in the right direction.