Tobi Maier: Today’s event is part of the Cemitério das Âncoras [Cemetery of Anchors] exhibition at Galeria da Boavista. Within the context of this exhibition, the artists Veronika Spierenburg and Nuno Barroso will ask Álvaro Garrido a series of questions, exploring and seeking to expand upon the themes related to the exhibition. I’ll introduce the participants with some background information they’ve provided and then we’ll move on to the five questions:
Álvaro Garrido is a full professor at the Faculty of Economics, University of Coimbra, and is its current director. He was director of the Ílhavo Maritime Museum between 2003 and 2009. A researcher at CEIS20, he has published extensively on the history of economics and institutions, with international contributions on the history of maritime fisheries, corporatism and the social economy. His publications include books, scientific articles, book chapters and catalogue texts. As author or co-author, he has recently published the following books: As Pescas em Portugal [Fisheries in Portugal] (Fundação Francisco Manuel dos Santos, Lisbon, 2018); A Economia Social em Movimento. Uma História das Organizações [Social Economy on the Move. A History of Organisations] (Tinta da China, 2018); Too Valuable to be Lost: Overfishing in the North Atlantic since 1880 (De Gruyter, Berlin, 2020); Il Portogallo di Salazar. Politica, Società, Economia [Salazar’s Portugal. Politics, Society, Economy] (Bologna University Press, 2020).
Nuno and Veronika are here with us. They also have a vast body of work and the exhibition at Galeria da Boavista, until [20 June 2021], present this extensive research in a project that involved four years researching the history of artisanal fishing in Portugal. Veronika works in an area where sound intersects with body movement and architecture, employing a wide diversity of media and materials. She studied photography at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam and then completed a Masters in Fine Art at Central Saint Martin’s College, London. And Nuno studied environmental engineering at NOVA University Lisbon and photography at Atelier de Lisboa. He’s currently working on the collaborative art project Guarda Rios, a nomadic and experimental collective that conducts research on the rivers of the Iberian Peninsula. […]
Frames from the film Cemitério das Âncoras (2021), by Veronika Spierenburg & Nuno Barroso. Courtesy of the artists.
About 90 seconds of this film was shared at the beginning of the talk.
Veronika Spierenburg: […] So I’ll just do one minute of introduction about how we started this research, that began with the Anchor Cemetery in Barril [Praia do Barril, Santa Luzia, Tavira. We wanted to explore the history with our own eyes and understanding. Those big anchors are used for setting nets in a maze to capture the tuna in a central pool. Nuno and me we started to see each other frequently, we drove to different places on the coastline in Portugal and during our visual anthropological investigation of the Portuguese coastal landscape we tried to understand the coherences of ecological, social, and political issues in small scale fisheries. During this period we were capturing visual footage and recorded oral histories of the respective fishing communities. So, without being too moralistic we wanted to get a better knowledge on this topic and, during our journeys, several questions arose and therefore I’m very happy we can question Álvaro. Thanks, Álvaro, for accepting this invitation, thank you.
Nuno Barroso: Hello Álvaro, thank you very much for accepting the invitation. Just to complement Veronika’s introduction a little: we were in this process for three, four years; we initially knew relatively little, there was a kind of visual excitement here with this place (the Anchor Cemetery at Barril Beach), which we realised was quite limiting. Therefore we began to open up and expand, which led us to initiate a journey that was made in several chapters, from Vila Real de Santo António to Caminha. Of course it’s a very ambitious project, it’s an idea that would require more time than we had and perhaps greater involvement, but that’s as far as we were able to go and then this opportunity arose to create this exhibition and bring thing to a conclusion. And indeed, as Veronika was saying, our curiosity is insatiable, and we always want to explore, explore, and try to understand more, even though we’re aware that the content is immensely vast, with multiple facets and many complex aspects. We tried to focus on this issue of small-scale fishing, as it’s something that we feel was once essential to our coasts, an activity that was once economically significant, as well as socially and culturally too. Nowadays, however, as we’ve realised during this process, it’s fading away, disappearing, and there’s a legacy of knowledge and many other things that are vanishing, but that’s also part of moving forwards.
Our first question relates to this first part of the film, which was made in the Anchor Cemetery at Barril Beach in the Algarve, which used to be a tuna fishing operation, as Veronika also mentioned, and ended up closing down due to the overexploitation of stocks of this species entering through the Mediterranean… And our question is to understand if fishing has been a relatively erosive, destructive thing ― marine pollution, climate change, all this is putting enormous pressure on marine ecosystems ― what solutions are there, what can the future of fishing be like? And also, to understand and frame this issue historically: when was overfishing and the issue of stocks/declining stocks first mentioned in Portuguese history?
Álvaro Garrido: Hello, hello everyone. Hello Veronika, hello Nuno, Tobi, everybody. Thank you for your invitation. I’m delighted to take part in this project of yours, which is a project for the people. It’s very funny that the invitation I’ve been offered to answer, or try to answer, some fundamental questions, begins with an image of the beach where I usually spend my holidays. This is very common and reflects the paradoxical relationship we have today with the sea; that is, to understand fishing, as a rule we start by examining or inhabiting places that today are basically places of divestiture or of pure leisure. And that’s quite curious because it’s an extremely interesting paradox. I know Barril Beach well, and this history of the anchors that, indeed, carries an immense symbolic weight and recalls overfishing, as Nuno was telling us, that is, the end of an activity, a human endeavour that was, incidentally, depicted with epic overtones when, in truth, it was a hunt that had certain Dantean aspects: the tuna harvest.
As regards overfishing, it’s an extremely complex issue. One of the great enigmas of our time is precisely this: why are so many fishery resources practically exhausted or at risk of being lost. It’s a story that goes back a long way. In Portugal, references to overfishing emerge relatively late on — like other matters in science, the environment and ocean knowledge, they came relatively late to Portugal. The first author to offer an important observation on the relationship between fishing activity, the fishing industry and the natural abundance of species is unquestionably Captain Baldaque da Silva, at the end of the 19th century, in a monumental book, “Estado Actual das Pescas em Portugal” [The Current State of Fishing in Portugal], which he wrote and illustrated by walking along the coastal beaches and questioning the fishermen and the businesses and small companies that existed there. But the references actually start earlier, without using the precise concept and term overfishing. They’re already evident in the late 18th century, or rather the issue of balance in the exploitation of land and sea resources (sustainability, as we would say today) is an invention of the Enlightenment. This idea of overfishing, or the idea that one might be fishing more than the natural environment could support, is an idea from the Enlightenment, from the naturalists of the late 18th century, and this notion was later developed by the scientific academia of the early 19th century. But it’s elaborated on, or rather, it becomes strikingly evident, at the end of the 19th century, beginning in Great Britain, and this is no coincidence. It’s the issue of the North Sea, and the depletion of North Sea cod and herring fishing grounds, that in fact gives rise to a modern scientific warning, i.e. with an accompanying theoretical elaboration, regarding the problem of overfishing. In the 1880s, 1890s, the late 19th century, the Royal Commission of English Fisheries (I believe this was the name, or “…British Fisheries”) was, let’s say, the great institution that worked on the problem of overfishing. These theoretical, methodological and empirical developments reached Portugal much later. In fact, they arrived at the end of the 19th century, brought by naval officers, but it wasn’t until the 1940s that they were seriously developed, insofar as attempting to find remedies or solutions to the problem of overfishing. It was in 1943 that a book was published that today is a real treasure. It was entitled “The Overfishing Problem”, by the Englishman Edward Russell, who was then director of the Lowestoft laboratory in Great Britain, which was, shall we say, “the Mecca for biologists” at that time. This book was translated into Portuguese by the veterinarian Alfredo Magalhães Ramalho, who was director of the Marine Biology Station in Portugal at the time. He was the founder ― one of the founders ― of the Vasco da Gama Aquarium, and was therefore a naturalist, a doctor (there weren’t exactly any fishery biologists), and the man who, through his own initiative, translated Russell’s book “The Overfishing Problem” into Portuguese. From then on, this was in the 1940s, the issue took off in Portugal. In 1946, Portugal was one of the signatories of the London Overfishing Convention, which is the first known convention to use the term and, consequently, after the Second World War, with the exponential growth of the fishing industry, the issue takes on another dimension.
What solutions can be offered? Are there solutions for addressing this issue (as, I believe, Nuno asked)? Of course they exist, they’ve been tried, they form part of the rules, for example, of the European Union’s common fisheries policy, they’re also part of the measures adopted by various multilateral organisations for managing fishery resources in the global ocean framework, but they’re insufficient. In other words, the practical utopia of eradicating, of eliminating overfishing, is a constructive utopia, but one that has not yet been achieved. At various points in the Common Fisheries Policy, it was even declared, quite dogmatically, that signs of overfishing would be radically eliminated. That didn’t happen, and, in fact, today the system for exploiting fisheries that we have, especially in industrial, intensive, highly capitalised fisheries — we’re not talking about local, almost artisanal fisheries — is all geared towards creating the vicious cycle of scarce resources and decreasing incomes (because fishing is a bio-economic problem; it’s not only bio-economic, it’s bio-economic and social, I would say) so it gets worse, doesn’t it?
In fact, I believe that one of the problems with overfishing diagnoses lies in the theoretical model used to approach the issue. Because the theoretical model of analysing overfishing, which is then translated into or reflected in concrete policies and instruments, is too bio-economic, i.e. it’s based on the assumption (the assumption of liberal, neoclassical economics, if you like) that fishing industry revenues should be maximised — and that assumption is flawed. Because, in fact, what we need to do is value natural capital and preserve the human communities that depend on fishing, that’s the fundamental issue.
NB: Okay, that brings me to our second question. Throughout this process, and when we’ve engaged with these people who are involved in this small-scale fishing, they almost always assume that they’re the oldies, that it’ll end, that it’ll disappear, that it’ll become extinct. We’d like to know what Álvaro thinks about this and if he sees any possibility of this small-scale fishing being something that can continue in the future. There was a statement from Professor Michael Weber, from the Aguda Coastal Station, in which he said: “No. There is a future!” We’d like to know if in fact such small-scale fisheries can be a thing that will continue to exist and if we can learn anything from it.
ÁG: Absolutely! The question of small-scale fisheries, right? There are lots of labels and concepts that digress from one another and so forth, but what is the general current trend? It’s clearly a loss of the active population connected to fishing in general; fishermen are ageing; and there’s a visible abandonment of the activity. The active fishing population in Portugal and in other countries — this isn’t a problem unique to Portugal — has declined in recent years, but I share Michael’s view that small-scale fishing has a future and, indeed, it’s through small-scale fishing that the future of fisheries should be conceived. Because, actually, small-scale fishing is more sustainable, it’s on a local scale, it’s based on a much more refined knowledge of resources, it has less environmental impact from the outset, it uses factors of production in a non-intensive and less capitalistic way, and it’s therefore no coincidence that some fisheries regulation policies, particularly in the European Union, have always tended to value the role of small-scale fishing, for a wide variety of reasons.
The reality… Today we have an illusory image which, to some extent, is reflected in Nuno’s question, which is that small-scale fishing hasn’t declined that much in Portugal. Remember that in 2015, 76% of Portuguese fishery workers (registered fishermen; we know there are many more, there’s an informal dimension to fishing activity) — 2015 was only yesterday, 6 years ago — were primarily small-scale fishermen. We know that a good part of the activity is multi-skilled, there’s an occupational complementarity, and there’s a register for identification purposes and also for registering the boats (and the length of the boats themselves and their characteristics). So considerably more than two thirds of those involved in fishing, just six years ago, were still small-scale and even today the figure remains at a little over two thirds. From a social point of view, and from the point of view of the local micro-communities in estuarine areas, in the Ria Formosa, in the Ria de Aveiro, in the estuaries on the coast where it’s possible to fish in more adverse weather, small-scale fishing is immensely important. And at this moment in time, except for this parenthesis caused by the pandemic, due to the influx of tourism, the tourist boom that Portugal has experienced in recent years, there’s actually been an extraordinary surge in fish consumption, resulting in large part from small-scale fishing and also sport fishing (we have some difficulty in distinguishing the two). There’s therefore no doubt that the future of fishing as an economic activity must increasingly involve small-scale fishing and must involve far less industrial means, which make intensive use of production factors that are highly predatory to nature. We’ll have to pay… Professor Mário Ruivo, who was a great thinker about these things and an extraordinary biologist, a personal friend of mine, used to say: “We’ll soon be paying caviar prices for fish” — that was a very interesting image, almost prophetic, that referred to this idea that fresh fish caught according to a logic of proximity actually has a price, and it’s a price that’s higher than what we generally pay in Portugal, where we have the privilege of eating fresh fish at relatively affordable prices, which are, in fact, surprisingly affordable in the eyes of foreigners, because in most countries it’s not like that, is it? Anyway…
NB: I’ll invite Veronika to practise her Portuguese and ask us the third question, which has precisely to do with fish…
ÁG: It can be English, that’s fine, be my guest.
VS: I’ll try, I’ll try. [laughter] If fish could talk to us what would each species tell us?
ÁG: That’s a very literary question. Father António Vieira, he was the one who spoke to the fish, it wasn’t the fish that spoke to him… This is interesting because, in fact, the sardine would tell us that it’s the queen of fish in Portugal. There’s a kind of symbolic struggle, a kind of rhetorical podium, isn’t there? What’s the most important fish for the Portuguese, the symbol? Because there’s this paradox: cod has become the symbol of the Portuguese, of Portuguese identity, which doesn’t make much sense from a biogeographical point of view because we don’t have Atlantic cod on our coasts, nor any other type of cod. In fact, the real king, the species extraordinaire, is the sardine. The sardine has always been the most abundant species in waters near the Portuguese coast and in the Portuguese territory off the Portuguese coast. Historically, the sardine was hugely important in sustaining the Kingdom of Portugal, in terms of the food supply — just remember all those protectionist policies of the Marquis of Pombal, in the 18th century, to prevent the smuggling of sardines to Spain, because it was extremely important for the kingdom’s food supply, it was primarily a means of providing food for the population. Cod was not yet as important as it would later become. Towards the end of the 19th century, meanwhile, sardines would become a hugely important industrial raw material for the fish canning industry. If we had fishing statistics on landings a few centuries ago, we would certainly see that the sardine was always the great Portuguese catch in terms of volume of fish landed, except for three or four years during the Estado Novo when cod was king because of Salazar’s protectionist policies. And, in fact, the cod phenomenon (I spent many years studying the cod industry during the Estado Novo, the “Salazar cod”) is an extremely interesting one. As I said, Portugal doesn’t have cod on its coastline but it’s the world’s leading consumer of Atlantic cod and has been for centuries. Of our high fish consumption (as a people, we’re one of the biggest consumers of fish), half is basically cod — dried salted cod and nowadays also other forms of preserved cod. Why is this? Because Portugal, although it has a very long coastline, and is a coastal country, it’s an oceanic zone with low natural productivity, meaning the fish from our coasts and from local, artisanal fishing has never been enough to feed the kingdom, society, the domestic market. And hence the historical prevalence of distant-water fishing, cod in the North Atlantic and hake and other species of large fish in the South Atlantic, since at least the 15th and 16th centuries. It’s very interesting, because we still see it today: fishery stakeholders are mostly linked to small-scale fisheries; the social expression of small-scale fisheries in maritime communities is immense, in local markets too, in small value chains; but then the industry, finance itself, the institutional lobby and weight in public policies, historically, leans towards distant-water fishing. And that paints a very interesting portrait of Portuguese fishing. Octopus is also quite important, as are mackerel and other species, but in truth it’s always been the sardine and the cod vying for supremacy in Portugal.
NB: Changing topic now, Professor Álvaro was also the director of the Ílhavo Maritime Museum. Jumping here to the museological aspect, what can museums do for this cultural heritage, for this dialogue with people, and what can we learn from these objects and narratives that we’ve been accumulating in various museums scattered around the country? And this leads me to a question within the question which is: wouldn’t it be pertinent to discuss a museum of maritime culture instead of discussing a museum of the discoveries?
ÁG: That’s a splendid proposal, I agree. In fact, the concept of discoveries is too triumphalist, too ethnocentric; it’s deficient, I think it’s dated, it no longer makes much sense to use the term, it’s too historicist. I’d appreciate a museum of maritime culture much more. Curiously, we have very few in Portugal. Canadian and Norwegian colleagues sometimes ask us: “Are these the only maritime museums you guys have? Aren’t there any other maritime museums in Portugal?” — No, there aren’t. There’s the Navy Museum, a great naval museum, there’s the Ílhavo Maritime Museum, there are others, but there are no museums that celebrate maritime culture. I believe that what’s most important in fisheries, from a cultural and social perspective, is in fact this heritage of maritime culture, i.e. the boats, the ships, the construction techniques, the skills, the fishing methods, and then all the memory, oral and living, of the human communities that depended on fishing — the fishermen, the women, the children, the successive generations of fishermen. In other words, maritime culture is a human archive of immense importance and it can be found on any beach. Santa Luzia de Tavira, for example, whose image you showed, is an archive of maritime culture, where it’s possible to find old cod fishermen, old hake fishermen off the coast of Morocco, people, women who worked in canneries, in shellfish gathering, local fishing, in other words almost all the maritime culture linked to fishing, and not only that, it’s all found in a small place, a border between land and sea, and with the branches of the Ria Formosa nearby.
I believe that museums are at a crossroads, and maritime museums have an urgent need to recreate or reinvent themselves at this juncture. There’s pressure. Firstly, the pandemic had a terrible impact on museums because they excessively submitted to a logic of mass appeal. In other words, getting people into the museum, totting up numbers and exhibiting a certain legitimacy was the programme followed by all museums up until a few months ago, and I think that now we’re going to have to think about things differently. So what opportunity do we have? I believe the opportunity is to firmly transform maritime museums from a predominantly ethnographic, nostalgic discourse, in which the maritime culture, the boats etc. are evoked with a certain nostalgia of greatness and lost beauty, or an overly harmonious image of fishing communities, and instead introduce a real programme of identity related to this material culture and these immaterial memories. And this programme of identity requires a civic knowledge of maritime life. Meaning why should people who are not from maritime communities be interested in the lives of those who are? This is a big issue (maritime museums are a bit of a “ghetto”, in that people who have nothing to do with the sea don’t go to them, or they go and understand practically nothing). And we should introduce this dimension of ocean literacy, which is now popular in science centres, such as the Lisbon Oceanarium, and which is a concept imported from the United States and Great Britain, an English-speaking concept as usual. But ocean literacy, sea literacy is much more than dogmatic and technocratic science about the ocean. It’s an aesthetic, cultural and social understanding of maritime life, and we have an immense wealth of maritime life in Portugal, extending to literature, poetry, or rather our entire culture is oceanic and maritime. So what we need is to include this in museums that talk about the sea, to help us understand what maritime life was like in those relatively exotic communities, and we keep emphasising this exoticism, which is a mistake. Fishing communities aren’t exotic communities, nor are they pure communities. In fact, they were often fraught communities, where competition, violence and tension were staples. We know that.
NB: Our final question, which paraphrases a recent exhibition, is this: is the sea actually ours? And this is linked to the issue of expanding the exclusive economic zone, the EEZ. What future does this expansion of the “country”, shall we say, hold for us? Not that I see it this way, but what does this mean in practice?
ÁG: I think this means a big change and a lot of rhetoric too. A big change because, in truth, the extension of the Portuguese continental shelf, the enlargement of the exclusive economic zone, for the most enthusiastic, is a kind of neo-romanticism, or in other words, “Portugal will become great again at sea, or through the sea”. This pompous discourse has historical precedents in Portugal — during the Estado Novo, the propaganda about Portugal’s return to the sea was more or less like this, wasn’t it? — it’s a discourse that should be avoided. I was perplexed, for example, a few years ago when I saw that map, a map that the Portuguese Ministry of Education (take a look) distributed to all schools, saying “Portugal is sea, an exclusive economic zone eighteen times the size of its terrestrial surface”. That was reminiscent of Henrique Galvão’s “Portugal is not a small country” map, wasn’t it? In other words, this almost neo-colonial rhetoric is present in the discourse, and I think this should be avoided. This rhetorical dimension is not needed at all, and sometimes there are Portuguese political sectors (even linked to the Portuguese Navy, in some cases, and even to science) that embark on this triumphalism.
Now, what is the reality of change that we can actually see? It’s a change in the Portuguese maritime economy, and not only the Portuguese maritime economy, [going] from a traditional structure closely linked to the fishing industry, the navies, the merchant navy and the ports (they were the so-called navies of this and that), to the new economy of the sea, the blue economy, which basically shifts the value chain from the water column to the marine soil and subsoil. In other words, there’s a great deal of invisibility, let’s say, and there’s a real shift here. This is actually a big change, because it translates into policies. If you analyse the political discourse closely, now, for some years now (this isn’t new, this is at least 10, 15 years old), there’s a clear devaluing of fisheries, which from a social point of view are still the main subsector of the economy of the sea in Portugal; there’s a clear devaluation of maritime business, of ports… in part yes, in part no; and there’s a shift in the discourse, with scientific arguments that are sometimes extremely opaque, unclear and poorly communicated, on the issue of mining the marine soil and subsoil and on the value chains that will arise from the systemic exploitation of these resources. But, in fact, this value chain is still relatively incipient. From a social point of view it’s not yet significant, and we’re still in a very prospective phase in terms of mapping these resources. But there’s a transition of paradigms here and this transition has already been cemented in the political and institutional decisions — the European Union itself has already transitioned to this new maritime economy, with all the associated blue economy images. In any case, I believe that the role of maritime culture in this transition can be a stabilising one, raising awareness about the preservation of traditional human communities that depend on the sea, about the role of small-scale fishing, about local maritime industries, and about sustainable activities that must be preserved, linked to tourism, but also to economic activities that ensure the survival of coastal communities. So we’re experiencing a great change in Portugal’s relationship with the sea, which has always been a very superficial relationship, despite the maritime rhetoric we’re accustomed to. There’s a certain rediscovery of the sea these days, but I believe that this rediscovery incorporates little of the maritime culture and the aesthetic and artistic dimension of the sea, which this type of project can really promote.
NB: Thank you very much, Álvaro. Well, we could have another twenty questions, and we could stay here for another two hours!
TM: I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Álvaro Garrido for his time, and Nuno and Veronika for their tremendous creativity in formulating the questions, and the generosity of all of you in sharing your visual, aesthetic and academic research knowledge, and also your wisdom on museological issues, which I think also concern all of us, especially art professionals like myself. I’d also like to thank the other Cemetery of Anchors exhibition partners, the National Museum of Ethnology in Lisbon, the Lisbon Municipal Photographic Archive, the Grão Vasco Museum in Viseu, the Navy Museum, Pro Helvetia and the Swiss Embassy in Portugal, who facilitated the production of works, loans, the exhibition production, and the publication that we’ll soon be able to launch together with Nuno and Veronika.