Bay of Biscay anchovies revive a way of life for Basque fishers | Oceana
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Spain's sleepy port of Hondarribia is a prime spot for exquisite anchovies.

Photo Credit: Jorge Argazkiak / Shutterstock

The 2005 anchovy season began like any other. On a chilly evening in early March, small Spanish fishing fleets motored into the Bay of Biscay, on the hunt for schools of the small silver fish.

Among the 200-odd boats was the 100-foot Itsas Eder, Basque for “beautiful sea.” It departed from the sleepy town of Hondarribia, nestled against the French border in the heart of Basque country. The boat’s captain was 44-year-old Eugenio Elduayen, a handsome, burly man whose family had been fishing for at least four generations. Elduayen had witnessed many changes since he first started working with his grandfather in the 1970s: the introduction of fishing licenses, the arrival of a rival French fleet, more comfortable boats, better nets, boom years when their boats overflowed with fish, and storms that lashed the sea and kept them land-bound. One thing remained constant, however: The schools of anchovy that gathered at the surface of the sea at night, which Elduayen’s crew would encircle and scoop up with nets.

In March of 2005, however, Elduayen saw something different. He and some two dozen other captains from Hondarribia crisscrossed the Bay’s inshore waters, checking their sonar screens for signs of anchovy. After a few nights, however, they were forced to give up and return to shore. The anchovy had simply disappeared. “We had always seen the anchovy,” Elduayen said. “We never thought it would end.”

The queen of the sea

The anchovies from Spain’s Atlantic coast are considered one of the world’s great delicacies. Unlike the gristly specimens to be found in American supermarkets and on pizza, the anchovies harvested in the inshore regions of the Bay of Biscay, known as the Cantabrian Sea, are succulent and complex. They bear as much relation to pizza anchovies as instant coffee does to Javanese Arabica.

Chefs say the Bay of Biscay’s cool waters give the anchovies an added layer of fat that makes them tender. But the secret to their greatness isn’t just the anchovies themselves, but the way the locals cure and prepare them. The resulting fillets, encased in olive oil and packaged in colorful tins, can run you $3 a fish. These anchovies make their way around the world, ending up in meat dishes, pasta sauces and, of course, salad niçoise.

Naturally, they also eat a lot of anchovy in “Green Spain,” the stretch of Spain’s north coast backed by the verdant Cantabrian Mountains. San Sebastián, the Belle Époque capital of Basque country, serves anchovies at its multiple Michelin-starred eateries. Yet the anchovy is part of everyday life too. In Elduayen’s town of Hondarribia, a half-hour drive from San Sebastián, you can stroll past the brightly-colored houses of the old fisherman’s quarter. There, anchovy is served fresh, fried, cured and pickled at buzzing bars specializing in pintxo — the Basque country’s answer to tapas.

The European anchovy, one of six commercial species of anchovy, is not just a vital part of Basque cuisine. This handsome blue and silver creature, between five and six inches long when caught, also feeds the marine ecosystem in the Bay of Biscay, an 86,000-square-mile body of water almost half the size of Spain itself. Swimming in schools with its mouth agape, the anchovy filters plankton and fish eggs from the water. The anchovy in turn are feasted on by many species, from hake to dolphins to seabirds. “It gives life to Cantabria,” Elduayen says. “The anchovy is the queen of the sea.”

The anchovy was not always so celebrated in the Basque country. For many centuries, it was regarded by the Spanish as a baitfish, useful for catching other highly prized species like sea bream. In the late 19th century, however, Italians arrived in the region, looking for more anchovy to satisfy Mediterranean demand. They set up salting operations along the Spanish coast, perfecting the months-long curing method that is still used today. They also pioneered the removal of the fish’s skin and bones and the packaging of fillets in a bed of olive oil, both traditions that are still performed by hand.

In March 2005, things were meant to unfold much as they had for the last 100 years. After fishing at night and through the early hours, the fishermen would have been met at the town docks at 7 in the morning by local buyers, who would inspect crates brimming with samples and bid on the catches. Their purchase made, the buyers would whisk the anchovies to their factory, where the fish would be cleaned and laid in fan shapes in barrels packed with salt for nine months of curing. But that year, things were different.

Empty nets

By early May, fishermen in the Bay of Biscay had managed to catch just 1 percent of their normal haul. The European Union called it “a complete crash of the commercial fishery.” In response to the crisis, the Basque fishermen contacted the scientists employed by the Spanish government to monitor the stock.

One of these was Andrés Uriarte, a renowned Spanish fisheries expert who has monitored fish in the Bay of Biscay since the late 1980s. As part of the Spanish research body AZTI, Uriarte oversaw the yearly anchovy surveys in the region. He was fascinated by the fish: Its short life span, just two to three years, made it a great sentinel of the sea. One year’s eggs would be the next year’s adults, meaning that it was easier to trace how the conditions in any given year affected the number of fish.

Uriarte had watched the stock struggle from 2001, when not many eggs turned into adults. This worried him deeply. But he’d also seen over the decades how resilient the anchovy was to fishing. In the end, he was somewhat surprised by the collapse. “You always read about this happening to other populations, somewhere else,” he says. “But you thought this was not going to happen to these fish.”

Oceana had also been fearing trouble for some time. Their Europe staff had watched as the Agriculture and Fisheries Council, made up of ministers from the 28 European Union member states, repeatedly voted to set yearly catch quotas far above the limits recommended by scientists, despite intensive lobbying from Oceana. “If you disregard the scientific advice for too many years, you have a huge problem,” says Javier López, a marine scientist at Oceana Europe.

In the early 2000s, when the Bay of Biscay anchovy started to falter, the independent scientific body advising the EU recommended a total allowable catch (TAC) for the 2002 to 2003 season of 12,500 metric tons. The Council voted to set it at the same amount they had since 1995: 33,000 tons. Fishermen landed just 10,600 tons. Similar scenarios played out in 2004 and 2005, with the TAC double or triple the scientific advice and the actual catch. By 2005, it was too late. The fishermen couldn’t have hauled in their TAC of 30,000 tons if they had wanted to. They could hardly find a single anchovy in the sea.

Collapse and catastrophe

What caused the collapse of the stock? The obvious answer would be overfishing, but that’s too simplistic, says Uriarte. Environmental factors, such as the direction of the winds, salinity, currents and water temperatures play a role in how many larvae and juveniles survive to become adult anchovies. There’s no doubt that fishing plays a part, Uriarte says, by removing adults that would otherwise spawn. He and his colleagues estimate that the fishery in the Bay of Biscay historically took about 40 percent of the adult population every year.

Under normal conditions, when the total population is between 50,000 and 120,000 tons, this should be sustainable, he says. But when one year’s larvae fail to grow into adults, and this happens year after year, the total number of anchovy can sink to dangerously low levels. By 2005, the adult stock had declined to the point that the catch set for that year — 30,000 tons — was two to three times all the remaining adult anchovy in the Bay.

The Basque fishermen think something else contributed to the decline of the anchovy: The sinking of the oil tanker MV Prestige. In November 2002, the tanker foundered off the coast of northwest Spain, spilling some 77,000 metric tons of oil into the surrounding waters. There scientific jury is out as to whether the disaster hurt the anchovy, but Elduayen says that in the wake of the spill, the few anchovies they pulled up in their nets were always “caught in a pigsty of tar.”

Circumstances, it was clear, were not on the side of the anchovy in 2005. Urged on by Oceana and its allies, the European Union decided to shut the fishery on July 1, and later extended the ban through the winter. When national ministers gathered in Brussels that December to discuss the coming March harvest, however, they were as optimistic as ever, setting the TAC at 5,000 tons, despite scientific advice to keep the fishery closed. They included the proviso that catches could be bumped up if scientists found the population had somehow made a comeback. They also agreed to let the fishery close if was in danger of collapsing all together. Scientists drew the line for a moratorium at a population level of 28,000 tons or less. In the spring, scientists found the stock had crossed that line and then some: It was at just 18,640 tons. The fishery shut again in July 2006.

The closure was not easy for the fishermen. In losing the anchovy, Elduayen and his Basque compatriots, who bring home 85 percent of all Spanish anchovy landings from the Bay, lost almost 30 percent of their yearly revenue. They received EU subsidies of €45 per day per crew member for a maximum of 40 days, and were still able to fish for tuna in the summer and mackerel in the winter. But the closure still forced some out of the trade, particularly smaller boats that were more dependent on anchovy. During the closure, the Basque fleet shrunk by 5 percent every year, and local canneries had replaced Biscay anchovy with imports from abroad. Still, the fishermen of Hondarribia supported this closure. “We realized we were facing a catastrophe,” says Elduayen.

Many involved thought the closure would only last for a year, but it dragged on as the anchovies struggled to recover. In July 2007, the European Commission reported on findings of spring surveys — though the stock had rebounded to 30,000 tons, it was not enough to start fishing again, as all those fish were needed for spawning.

Another wrinkle was the opposition of the French to the closure. About 100 French boats harvest the Bay of Biscay anchovy in the fall. And some of those fishermen believed the closure was a conspiracy to push them out. The Spanish, "want to pillory French fishing and become the sole masters of the Bay of Biscay,” said local fishing representative Frederic Charrier of Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie.

The queen returns



There was bickering and discord as the region tried to deal with the crisis. But there were also positive signs. “We would go out to fish albacore and, little by little, we would see anchovy and say, ‘You know, this is getting better; it’s recuperating,’” says Elduayen. “We held on and were patient.”

In the meantime, the Basque fishermen took action. Up to that point, “the quota had always been just something written on a piece of paper,” says Elduayen. “Even if there were no anchovies in the sea, the politicians would write 33,000 tons, and that was it.” After the collapse, the Basque fishermen’s attitude to this “changed radically,” Elduayen recalled. “We made the decision that we must always go with biological facts.” They started by reaching out to Uriarte and his team from AZTI, who agreed to work with them.

Together, Uriarte and the fishermen decided to set up a plan. It would have one hard-and-fast rule: That catch limits be set according to the number of anchovy in the sea. If the stock fell below a certain limit, the fishery would close. If population grew, the fishermen would be allowed to net more. But they could never take more than 33,000 tons. In response to this proposal, the European Commission swung into action, bringing on board scientists and fishermen from Spain and France, as well as others involved in the fishery, to begin formalizing the new management plan. “Thank God we all came to an agreement,” says Elduayen.

By 2008, the plan was ready. But were the anchovy? It was not until late 2009 that the fish began to show signs of a real comeback. The people who spotted it were Uriarte and his AZTI team. They had been pioneering a new survey technique that would count the juveniles in the fall that would become adults the following spring. This acoustic method, which they had been working on since 2003, hadn’t been officially accepted by the EU’s scientific advisors as a means of gauging the population yet. Nevertheless, the AZTI team submitted its findings to the Spanish government and the European Commission. It was very likely, they said, that there would be a strong class of anchovy arriving in 2010.

The EU’s scientists were reluctant, but the Spanish and French governments jumped, reopening the fishery for the spring of 2010 with a TAC of 7,000 tons. On March 1, the Basque fishermen headed out into the Bay for the first time in four years, once again hauling up nets full of wriggling, silver fish. By June 10, Elduayen and his compatriots had brought home their 5,400 tons. The French then dove in, scooping up their quota of 1,600 tons.

It was an encouraging year for the fishermen, who were delighted to bring in anchovy once again. And in 2013, AZTI’s acoustic survey method was finally approved, making it easier to judge just how many fish the fishermen should take.

Not everything was smooth sailing, however. In 2010, the Fisheries Council in Brussels set the TAC at 15,600 tons, more than double the scientific advice of 6,000 tons. Oceana protested. Luckily by 2011, the anchovy had bounced back to a total adult population of almost 100,000 tons, the highest level since 2001, and 80,000 tons more than it had been the year the fishery closed. The plan devised by Uriarte and the fishermen has worked well. “We go hand in hand with the biologists,” says Elduayen. “They recommend and they let us recommend. Now we set the quotas instead of having the paper quotas telling us.” 

The annual catch has climbed gradually as the numbers of anchovies have grown each year. In 2016, the catch jumped to a little over 18,000 tons. That year, adult anchovies weighed in at  over 120,000 tons, one of the largest populations recorded since Biscay anchovy surveys began in 1987. “The fishery is currently at very high and healthy levels,” says Uriarte. As a result, fishermen were allowed to fish up to the familiar TAC — 33,000 tons — that had been the default for decades. That year, however, it was biologically justified.

Oceana’s Lopez says that despite a “history of mismanagement,” the fact that the anchovy was given time to recover is a great achievement. “It is not very common that you are able to convince the EU to close a fishery,” he says.

For his part, Elduayen and his community are “rejoicing” now that the anchovy are back. “It’s a beautiful sight to see the Cantabria so healthy,” he says. But his community’s years without the fish helped them grow in unexpected ways. “What I want to carry with me to the next generation, because I have a few years left, is this: The sea isn’t without end. We have to encourage it, and if we take care of it, it gives.”