Fishermen on land, a sign that there was no fishing. The rain didn't stop falling during the night, in Santa Luzia (Tavira), the boats didn't leave the port and, the few men who still make the sea life, are now preparing those who hope to be better days for the capture of the octopus .
Prevented from going out to sea during the last days of December, Joaquim Oliveira, 56, spends these stormy moments in his «house by the sea» preparing «the best opportunities to come».
He started fishing in 1989, because «I didn't go to school, because I didn't like it» and, until today, «I have been fishing every day that the weather allows», tells the fisherman to Sul Informação, while admiring the horizon with a sad look.
Influenced by his family, in which «all were fishermen», he ended up giving in to life's circumstances and, «as I liked going to the high seas more than being at school, I ventured out».
Over the years, Joaquim still makes a living from the sea, but «another year or two, I'll pick up my little things and retire».
«Being a fisherman is very hard work, but when we do it out of passion, everything becomes easier», he exclaims.
In the background, coming from one of the fishermen's houses, a small radio echoes “Canção do Mar”, but Dulce Pontes' voice is muffled and becomes imperceptible with the laughter that can be heard.
After everything is prepared for the coming days, which are expected to be better, there is room for coexistence between the men of the sea. Among anecdotes and conversations, other times are recalled, “perhaps easier”.
«In the past, we used to work with clay buckets, then they invented some that are made of plastic, and now, more recently, we have pots like this one», explains Joaquim, while pointing to one of these traps that has just been made nearby.
It is Fernando Baptista, in his «almost 80 years», who is dedicated to finishing another one of his «works of art». A retired fisherman for 12 years, he now spends his days building coves to «help the friends of the sea» and collaborates «in what I can and what they ask of me».
Among the various gears used in fishing, Fernando explains, through an example, that the covo stands out for being a «trap, made with plastic and iron nets», which has «a place for the octopus to enter» and « a bag that serves to place the bait'.
It is used for «fishing for octopus, but also for fish, crustaceans and molluscs» and, when they are thrown into the sea, «they are attached to a cable several meters long», which is then «collected by the fishermen».
Despite his advanced age, Fernando is well aware that «these traps are the biggest mistake they made», as the sea «is all polluted», regretting that «the fishermen don't look at it».
«Iron still rots, but the nets, made of oil, must take hundreds or thousands of years to break down», he emphasizes.
While he gives his opinion on this fishing gear, another covo is finished which, in a few days, will «go» to the sea. “Now all that's left to do is bait, which is usually mackerel or sardines, and you're ready to catch some beautiful octopus here,” jokes the retired fisherman.
The «old days» are, once again, brought into the conversation. The lack of fishermen, mainly the younger ones, is noticed by the others.
“In the past, the boats were full of young men, six to seven in each one. Now we hardly find younger fishermen and there is no one to replace those who are retiring», highlights Fernando.
Meanwhile, José Maria Mestre, better known among the fishing community as the shipowner Zé Maria, joins the conversation, as he says that «the subject interests me a lot».
The shipowner emphasizes that «there is a lack of new fishermen in Santa Luzia and throughout the country», saying that «sometimes, young people come for two or three days, but as they have no experience and do not want to go to school to if they graduate, they don't take the maritime certificate – necessary for fishermen – and end up giving up”.
In his case, this profession «is in my blood», as «my great-grandfathers and grandfathers already were», but he admits that «you have to enjoy being a fisherman or else it is not worth going to sea with just the idea of making money. If you don't like the sea, a man like that will never get anywhere», he guarantees.
In other matters, now as vice-president of the Association of Shipowners and Fishermen of Tavira, Zé Maria claims to be a defender of «a closed season for octopus fishing», but fears that this measure «will make fishermen feel difficulties».
“All the associations have asked for the closed season, but if it lasts for two months, of course any fisherman will experience difficulties. Children to study at university, houses and cars to pay for and we have to earn to make ends meet. In my opinion, the closed season should be reimbursed and the big problem is this: the State does not want to reimburse it», he stresses.
But the closed season is not just one of the fishermen's concerns. Despite not being able to go to sea during the weekend, due to the suspension of fishing decreed by the Ministry of the Sea, these men work “a lot of hours” in a “hard and difficult” profession, emphasizes Zé Maria.
Despite «being boring working at night», Joaquim is already used to the routines of a life linked to fishing. It leaves the port of Santa Luzia at 22:00 pm, with the boat loaded with covos, and returns at 6:00 am.
“Sometimes there are more octopus, other times there are less. During the spawning season, in the summer months, octopus fishing fails more. With these gales, as the species does not like fresh water, it flees from the nests and it is easier for us to catch large quantities».
After the storm, as the popular saying goes and the fishermen guarantee, comes the calm, and that was exactly what the Sul Informação accompanied an octopus discharge in Santa Luzia.
Already tired from a night on the high seas, they arrive at the fishing port when the morning is just beginning. As soon as “land” arrives, one of the men leaves the boat to fetch the orange boxes to put the octopus in. The fish can only be placed in these boxes in order to go to the auction.
When it is all unloaded and stacked on a cart, the octopus is taken by the fishermen to enter the small auction house in Santa Luzia, in Tavira, and later to be sold at auction.
Photos: Rúben Bento | Sul Informação
from the sea for sale
Despite being caught all over the Algarve, and Santa Luzia being known for being the “Capital of Octopus”, it is at the auction at Porto de Pesca do Arade that «this species has more movement», guarantees Alcina Sousa, director of Auctions and Fishing Ports in the South of Docapesca, in an interview with Sul Informação.
And if the fishermen didn't go to sea due to bad weather, the hustle of auctions at auction was not felt these December days. This is exactly what we came across during a visit to the Portimão fish market (actually located in the neighboring municipality of Lagoa, on the other side of the river). The meeting was scheduled, but the octopus, as well as the rest of the fish, never showed up.
Still, the employees don't sit back and prepare everything for the next day's fish auction.
Of the many activities that Docapesca performs, «the first sale of fish is the one that dominates our work», with octopus, in the Algarve, «having a great weight, around 50% of sales of this species at a national level», explains the director. Alcina Souza.
«There are many boats focused on catching octopus and, with that, they have been gaining a lot of value. Increasingly, especially in the last year, the octopus had a great appreciation in terms of price, which helped all the economic activity in this sector». There has also been an increase in the capture of this species.
«We have had years with plenty of octopus and we have others with a huge crisis. The last few years have been very good for the region and the increase in value has accompanied the volume of octopus captures», highlights Alcina Sousa.
According to data from the Directorate-General for Natural Resources, Security and Maritime Services (DGRM), to which the Sul Informação had access, it appears that the Algarve was the region that, in 2020, sold the most octopus, whether fresh or chilled, with a value of around 17,2 million euros.
This year, the Algarve region had a great weight in the value of auction sales, representing 54,7% of the national total (the total value, across the country, corresponding to 2020, was around 31,5 million euros) .
The almost three tonnes (2.838,2 Ton) of fresh and chilled octopus that were unloaded in the Algarve that year contributed to this figure, corresponding to around 54% of the amount unloaded of this species in the country as a whole.
In 2019, the Algarve region was the one in which the most octopus had been unloaded (2.605,6 tons).
Even so, with regard to the average price of octopus per kilogram, in the first sale, the Algarve has presented values above the national average price (which, in 2020, was 5,92 €/kg), but the region is not which, in recent years, has been the most expensive.
In 2020, the average Algarve price of octopus per kilogram, at the first sale, was around €6,08, but this is the lowest average cost in the region since 2017 (when it was €7,36/kg).
In terms of statistics, Docapesca «works and collects all the information» so that the DGRM can receive, at a national level, all this data, «including that of the octopus», explains Alcina Sousa.
When asked about the application of a closed season for catching octopus, the director of Lotas and Fishing Ports in the South of Docapesca explains that the company «has been debating and evaluating the situation», but, as an entity of the state business sector, « we are collaborating to the best of our knowledge».
As the Lota do Rio Arade «has a great movement of octopus», Docapesca decided to create «a specific auction for this species», which takes place at the same time as the sale of the rest of the fish, but «on another carpet».
«As it is easy to identify the size, freshness and place the octopus in batches, we chose to make a parallel auction, just for this species. The buyer has two panels and can buy the regular fish in one panel, like watching the octopus in the other».
This idea has won over octopus buyers since, «when they gather here to bid, this will end up making this species appreciate and the fishermen will bring here what they catch», emphasizes the director. Both buyers and fishermen benefit from this system.
Carolino Rodrigues, responsible for Lota do Rio Arade, adds that “this idea of having an auction just for octopus, which started almost four years ago, has attracted many buyers, mainly Spanish”.
“Before, the Spaniards would spend the whole afternoon at the auction to buy a box or two of octopus. Now, as soon as the auction starts, the octopus boxes are sold out in about half an hour», he stresses.
Lota do Rio Arade «almost did not sell octopus», but now, «with the increase in catches, we are selling more than the others in the Algarve», says the official.
Although, on the day the Sul Informação visited the place, there was no sale of fish or octopus, Carolino Rodrigues, accompanied by an employee, took a guided tour of the premises of Lota do Rio Arade, explaining how an auction usually takes place on a “normal” day.
«After the boats unload the fish», with the help of cranes, Docapesca employees «help in the identification and separation of the octopus by size - there are four categories that vary according to weight - and by the condition in which they arrive, if they are whole or 'ratados' [term used by fishermen for specimens that, not being complete, are sold at a cheaper price]'.
Each box is weighed and an identification slip is assigned to it with a number, species, size and weight, information that, during the auction, will be displayed on a screen «so that buyers can know what is in the box and so they can bid”.
During the octopus auction, which takes place at the same time as the other fish, buyers «follow the information in the boxes that appear on the screens», while «they have an electronic control in their hands, which they can press when they want to buy the fish box» .
«The buyer sees the information in the box and the system starts bidding at a certain value, based on the average sale of the last week. When he thinks the fish is at the price he wants, the buyer presses a button and buys it», explains Carolino Rodrigues.
Photos: Rúben Bento | Sul Informação
From sale to table
The sun has barely risen and Eduardo Mangas is already starting his day. He wakes up early to plan everything he has to do, like getting in his van and going to the Lota de Santa Luzia, in Tavira, to buy fresh octopus, the raw material for his business: an octopus factory and a restaurant.
«I buy the octopus at the auction and then, here at the factory, it is treated, washed, placed in couvets, depending on the different sizes, deep-frozen at minus 40ºC and then used in various ways», reveals the entrepreneur, as he guides us through the space.
This is “a small but classy octopus factory!” he exclaims.
The octopus that the businessman buys, after being treated, is «steamed in large ovens, which we have at the factory», which is «the secret to our success», reveals Eduardo Mangas.
With «some of the leftovers of the octopus that is cooked», the factory makes «rissoles, croquettes, spicy balls, samosas and a series of appetizers like these» which, after being fried, are some of the entrees that can be ordered in their restaurant, the “Casa do Polvo/Tasquinha”, in Santa Luzia.
These snacks can also be purchased in a new space in which Eduardo Mangas is investing: a “Mercadinho do Mar”.
It is a dream that the entrepreneur has had «for some time now» and that he hopes to open in February. It is next to the factory and will have “various products linked to the sea, provided they have been caught in the Algarve region”.
«We will have octopus of all sizes, deep-frozen and already cooked, as well as shrimp, crab, lobster and other seafood», highlights the businessman.
This space “will be available to anyone”, an alternative that Eduardo Mangas found, given the impediment of selling these products “to the common citizen”, since “we can only sell, at the factory, in large quantities”.
Located a few meters from the factory is the restaurant “Casa do Polvo/Tasquinha”, on the Santa Luzia waterfront. Overlooking the Ria Formosa, this space, decorated with traditional fishing gear, is «one of the village's landmark restaurants», as it has a «menu in which octopus is king», highlights the businessman.
Lunch time is approaching and some of the few tourists who spend their holidays in the village in winter are already sitting inside the restaurant waiting for the «innovative delicacies with octopus» that the restaurant «has on its menu».
At the entrance, a sign reading “there are three types of men: the living, the dead and those who walk in the sea”, next to one of the famous anchors of Armação do Barril, invites you to enter.
In the kitchen, the first dishes with octopus are already being prepared. «There is an “Octopus Almonds” and a “Octopus Grilled” for table two», exclaims Isabel Gonçalves, one of the restaurant's kitchen assistants.
At “Casa do Povo/Tasquinha”, among the dishes on the menu most requested by customers, «and which are our ideas, much appreciated by tourists», is the “Octopus Amêndoas”, «made with sweet potatoes, toasted almonds and apricots» , and the “Royal”, «a delicious octopus served with roasted sweet potatoes and with a special sauce made by us», explains Isabel, as she prepares the orders that, in the meantime, have arrived in the kitchen.
The traditional “Octopus à Lagareiro”, «with mashed potatoes and sautéed greens», and the “Grilled Octopus”, «a well-known dish in Santa Luzia», are not left out of the restaurant's menu.
«We try to offer the most traditional dishes with octopus, but we try to innovate and always prepare the best dish so that our customers are satisfied and have a pleasant surprise when they try something different», explains the kitchen assistant.
The “Casa do Polvo/Tasquinha” was already mentioned in the Michelin Guide for 2022, having highlighted «the cuisine and the fishing atmosphere» that the restaurant offers to diners, in a village that is recognized as the “Capital of Octopus”.
For Eduardo Mangas, the mention in the Michelin Guide «is a huge prestige» that values «all the work that has been done by our restaurant».
From the evenings to fishing on the high seas, through the process of selling at auction, to reaching the factories and then to the table in the restaurants or, simply, our house, the path that the octopus takes is long. This is the livelihood of many, whether as a work or as a pleasure at the table.
It may not seem like it, but in the Algarve, the fishermen of Santa Luzia say, laughing, referring to Zeca Afonso: «it is still the octopus who orders the most».
Photos: Rúben Bento | Sul Informação