Seafood in Portugal: How Fisheries Are Managed and What We Can Do to Eat it Sustainably

Ocean management and fishing quotas are far from perfect in Portugal, but here are some tips on how to make sea-friendly choices when you go to the fish shop.

Portugal has good seafood, and the Portuguese know how to cook it well. From a grilled robalo (sea bass), a multilayered caldeirada (fish stew with a variety of fish), to a personal favorite, arroz de marisco (seafood rice), the country’s huge coastline and variety of seafood on the menus may give us the notion that fresh and local seafood is abundant here. However, as we look deeper into the fishing industry we learn that this is far from true. 

Illustration by Bogdan Kamuta

Our oceans are violently overfished and more than half of the fish we eat in Portugal comes from foreign waters. 

Fishing quotas, also referred to as total allowable catches (TACs), for 2021 were set in December of last year, and left both the fishing industry and local environmentalists unsatisfied. Fishermen argue that the TACs allotted to Portugal are insufficient, particularly for the varieties of fish that have higher commercial value. The president of the Associação dos Armadores da Pesca Industrial (ADAPI – Industrial Fisherman Association), Pedro Jorge Silva, said to Lusa: “With these approved quotas, we may not have enough quotas to fish the whole year, which could compromise fishing ships’ activity in 2021.”

Local environmentalists were also displeased with the final TACs. They see them as being too high and not falling in line with the figures supported by scientific evidence. A consortium of Portuguese environmental NGOs stated that, “ … various quotas that are important for Portugal were defined, some of them were higher than the levels recommended by science and place the health of marine ecosystems and the sustainability of the fisheries they depend on at risk,” according to Público.

Portugal was able to negotiate higher quotas for pescada (hake), settling on a 5% cut as opposed to the 12.7% Brussels had initially proposed. Perhaps the largest victory for the fishing industry was the 20% drop in linguado (sole) fishing that had originally been stipulated to be 41.5%. These wide-margin negotiations understandably leave one wondering how closely scientific recommendations were followed, particularly when we consider that these quotas were negotiated with all member states of the EU. 

The European Commission (EC) has extensive ocean management policy. It established the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) — a set of rules for managing European fishing fleets stem from an understanding that while fishing stocks are renewable, they are also finite. 

If overfishing is not managed, fish populations will be pushed to the brink of collapse, or it will result in dramatic alterations in fish species. A recent study published by researchers at the University of Algarve points to the correlation of industrial fishing and the loss of genetic diversity in fish, and how this loss can lessen these fish species’ capacity to adapt to environmental transformations brought on by climate change.

The EC’s initiatives to regulate fisheries in the North Atlantic and European Seas is no easy feat, and faces many territorial challenges. Atlas reached out to Rita Sá, marine biologist and head of the Ocean and Fisheries department of WWF Portugal to understand how well managed the fishing industry is in Portugal. We spoke about the fishing quotas set for 2021 and Sá explained that the TAC figures are determined by an independent body contracted by the EC, the Independent Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES). They provide rates and percentages that serve as scientifically based recommendations, which are then taken into a meeting where the ministers of the sea and fisheries of all EU member states gather to negotiate the quotas for each country. 

Sá pointed out that these negotiations take place behind closed doors and lack transparency, so it is difficult to determine how closely the guidelines and recommendations provided by ICES are followed. 

She also said that the EC’s policies are flawed because they are predominantly focused on fishing models and practices from Northern Europe and fail to take into account that the south of Europe has very different characteristics. Portugal’s continental shelf is unique, in that while it’s rich with a diverse variety of fish species, it covers a short distance. This limits the waters where our fishing fleets can operate. Moreover, while Portuguese waters have a great diversity of species, the quantities of each are small. This makes Portuguese consumers largely dependent on fish from northern waters, particularly for staples like cod, hake, and salmon. In fact, Sá said that “anywhere from 60% to 66%, depending on the year, of fish consumed in Portugal comes from abroad.”

We as individuals may not have much say on fishing policy, but we can curb our habits as consumers to ensure our fish intake is more sustainable. Atlas reached out to Kate Findlay-Shirras, the creator of Best Fish Forward,  a project that offers a world of knowledge about sustainable fishing and ocean management. Findlay-Shirras has a degree in marine biology, and while she no longer works in that field, she continues to be greatly interested in sustainable seafood. She shines light on the fact that it’s not just about what species of fish you eat, but the manner in which they are fished, and provides a great introduction to fishing methods.

Findlay-Shirras spent nine months living in Lisbon in 2018 and created a fish list specific to Portugal with recommendations of which fish to eat and which to eat sparingly. She did mention that ideally this list should be updated every year, as fish populations fluctuate. 

Sá said that WWF is also working in this area and spoke about Fish Forward, an EU co-funded program that is aimed at raising awareness of the social and environmental impact of fish consumption. Portugal is part of the program and has created its own fish guide of recommendations for which fish to eat and which to avoid. This guide likewise differentiates the fishing methods used to capture certain species, and the method of catch is a determining factor to the sustainability of consuming that fish.   

Sá also noted that for you to be fully informed you need to know the specific species of the fish. For instance, certain species of squid are fine to eat while others are not, so you need to know the species and the region where it is caught.

Undoubtedly, trying to eat seafood sustainably is complex, but don’t be disheartened. Sá left us with some helpful tips: 

  • don’t eat infant fish, ensure that they are adults and have been able to contribute to at least one reproduction cycle
  • try to learn as much as possible about where your fish comes from when you go to the shop, ask questions, inquire about how it was caught and where
  • try to diversify your diet as much as possible, if we want to eat fish sustainably, we should eat what nature offers us, and the Portuguese coastline offers a rich diversity — don’t limit your diet to four or five types of fish

Also Sá left us with a final piece of advice: you can even eat fish that are on the “forbidden” list as long as it’s done very sparingly. “We try to communicate in a positive way, for instance if someone really likes eel, but it’s in a bad state, we say have it once a year,” she tells us. 

Here the big push is diversity: if you are eating a wide array of fish species, you are less likely to place a big toll on a specific type of fish.

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