Under the bridge that connects the continent with the Arousa Island, in Pontevedra, more than a hundred women with their backs bent stick the bag in the sand. The rain is raging, the wind is blowing, and they can’t wait for it to clear. The tide rules. Accompanied by seagulls and dressed in wetsuits, they have just a few hours to collect the quota of the day, four kilos of slimy clam, one of fine and a half of japonica. Only two of them, María Viana and Tania god, they have not yet reached 30. The average age of the shellfish workers of A Illa reaches 54 years and its president, Carmen God, explains that in the area it is not easy for young people to want to learn the trade. “It is a very hard job, the income is not fixed and it does not give you stability to organize your life, or to ask for a mortgage,” he sums up. The lack of generational renewal is even more pressing in fishing. The owners of the 8,972 Spanish vessels, half of them Galician, have more and more problems finding sailors, skippers or personnel in charge of the machines. Almost no one wants to venture into a life at sea anymore.
“Because of the shortage of crew, there are already boats that have not been able to go fishing,” he explains. Javier Garat, Secretary General of Cepesca, an organization that brings together 95 percent of the Spanish offshore fleet and a high percentage of the inshore. For Cepesca, the lack of workers is the biggest challenge facing the sector in Spain and Europe. «In the first meeting we had with the minister Luis Planas Two years ago, our first point was the lack of crew members and that we were aware that it is not their competence, ”Garat exemplifies.
20 percent of employment
Despite the gradual reduction in the number of ships experienced since its entry into the EU in 1986, Spain still retains 20% of Community employment in this sector, with almost 31,500 workers. But in the next few years many of these positions could be lost. Although there are no official data, in most of the boats the crews are over 50 years old and in fishing, due to the hardships of the profession, retirement reaches around 55-57.
“There are many people about to retire and it will not be an easy problem to solve,” he says. Basilio Otero, boss of Burela and president of the National Federation of Brotherhoods. In recent years the sector has failed to attract new professionals. “We were too closed,” he reflects. Fishing is not a comfortable job. Galician ships are present in all the seas of the planet and their crews can spend months away from home. But the sector has been transformed in recent years. «We have to tell people that we no longer wear an eye patch, nor peg leg, we no longer have a love in each port. That sailor from the galleys no longer exists ”, indicates Burela’s senior patron. The son of a sailor, Otero recalls that his father told him that when he embarked to go to capture bonito “he would put on his wet suit when he left for the sea and he would not take it off until he reached land. Even on the cot, when he slept, it rained, “he says. Now the fishing boats are better equipped, they have an internet connection that allows them to keep in touch with the family on a daily basis, «there are no endless days and the wages are not bad, although they depend on the fishing that is obtained in each tide, a sailor can charge an average of 2,000 euros per month net ”, explains Otero.
The lack of crew affects all jobs on board, from sailors to graduates. In Mariña Lugo, they have been hiring foreigners for years for their high-altitude fleet that operates, above all, in the Gran Sol fishing ground. It has been exploited since the 13th century and is rich in hake, monkfish and rooster and extends through British, Scottish and Irish waters. Since the 1980s an important community of Cape Verdeans has settled in Burela and later Senegalese, Peruvians and lately Indonesians arrived. 20 percent of the crews are already foreigners in Burela. The hiring of non-EU members was not easy and in the early years, various unions denounced conditions of near slavery for those arriving from Asia, crowded into flats provided by the companies that brought them and with salaries of just 500 euros. Now, both Garat, from Cepesca, and Basilio Otero affirm, except for “some shipowner who doesn’t do things well, which there always is”, the situation has changed. In April two years ago, a legislative reform was initiated to facilitate the hiring of foreigners in fishing vessels, but it requires the signing of bilateral agreements with other countries that in many cases have not yet arrived. The new framework is designed only for the deep sea fleet, so that boats that fish less than 200 miles from the Spanish coast continue to have difficulties finding sailors despite the fact that in these gears it is not necessary to spend so much time away from the family . When he started fishing, Otero was clear about it and decided not to follow in his father’s footsteps. “I sacrificed my salary for life,” explains Burela’s older boss, who has always dedicated himself to the lowlands.
The shellfish women sleep at home, but the shortage of the product in some banks forces them to work longer hours than before. At 61, Fina Rivas began looking for clams almost as she learned to walk. «There were no nurseries, nothing. My mother came to seafood and brought me with her. I would see a hole and I would say, dig there, “he recalls. “Before you went down and there was a lot of seafood and now there is almost nothing, and that we are less and less people on the beach,” he laments. God explains that the average salary in the brotherhood is around 600 gross euros in bad months and at most 1,000 in good ones. In other areas of Galicia, there is more shellfish and there are not so many problems for young people to decide to continue in the estuaries. Low back pain, tendonitis in the elbows and wrists and a host of physical problems often accompany these women when they reach retirement. In order not to depend on the tides, some decide to go with the wetsuit in the estuary. They can spend several hours there. Even so, Carmen affirms that she has learned “to love the job by dint of working” and does not change the feeling of being on the beach on a sunny day, breathing the sea air. “It is a very hard job, but you don’t have to work as many hours as on land,” explains María Viana, who at 28 is the youngest of the Arousana shellfish workers.
On board the Argos Pereira in waters near the Malvinas Islands, Iván Garrido works as a machine greaser on an 82-meter-long vessel that will spend four months looking for squid in the waters of the South Atlantic. He left on June 30 and will not return to the Pontevedra town of Bueu until the end of October. His father had the same trade and he hardly knew him as a child. “I always said that coming to the sea would be the last thing I would do,” he explains, “but the truth is that now I’m happy.” At 32, Garrido is the second youngest crew member on the ship. After working in a cannery, he decided to sign up for an experimental cycle of dual vocational training in the fishing industry. The studies began two years ago and all those who have finished them are already hired, he explains Rosa Meijide, responsible for Training of the Cooperativa de Armadores de Vigo, which has promoted the initiative. The nautical-fishing schools usually have the full quota, but practically no student wants to dedicate themselves to the trade. Most of them prefer to work on pleasure boats or in the merchant marine. According to Garat, after conducting a survey of the students, the majority responded that fishing was a job «dangerous, tough, poorly paid or that you had to spend a lot of time outside ». The shipowners are trying to convince the students to see the fishing fleet as an alternative, because at least the graduates receive better remuneration than in the merchant marine. “With a VET they can get salaries of 100,000 euros gross,” explains Meijide. “In the case of employers, the ‘Messi’ and ‘Ronaldos’ in the sector are paid up to 600,000 euros per year,” says Garat. Otero explains that there are many senior professionals who have already retired who are returning to the sea before the blank check signed by shipowners who cannot find someone to direct their fishing boats. In addition to Vigo, the shipowners are promoting this type of study in other coastal areas of Spain so that students can embark and go work while they carry out their studies.
Although conditions have improved on large ships, much remains to be done to convince new generations. “It sounds bad to say it but in the end foreigners come to do the jobs that we do not want here, as it also happens in the care of the elderly,” says Meijide. Ivan López van der Veen, CEO of Pesquera Ancora, believes that the sector has to start thinking about the «social sustainability and not only environmental». In most high-altitude boats, you still have to share a cabin with four other people and the crews are sometimes not large enough to allow adequate breaks. His company is the owner of one of the only two remaining cod fish farms in Galicia. They fish several months a year in the Arctic Circle in Norwegian waters. The ship no longer returns to the Spanish port to avoid the return trip and as happens in many of the Vigo vessels that fish in the Indian Ocean, the Pacific, the North Atlantic or the South Atlantic, it is usual for the crew to return home. by plane, which allows to increase the clearance time. Although the tides of the Lodairo trawler can last between 5 and 6 months, the crew does not spend more than two months without seeing the family. “It is a long time,” Lopez acknowledges, “but it is the equivalent of conciliation at sea.” To do this, they have had to hire 56 crew members for 36 jobs. They have also invested an extra million euros in the construction of the ship, which allows the cabins to be only for two people.
The peculiar Galician coastline does not know straight lines but an endless number of arms of the sea that go into land. There are about 1,500 kilometers of coastline that define a land that for centuries has not been understood without fishing and shellfish. The extraction activity and the transformation of products suppose in the Community about 2 percent of Gross Domestic Product. But the sea in Galicia has always been much more than just a job. It is a way of life and an important source of food, which could now be threatened.