A Dying Art
By Helen Daniel
Net repairing in the Algarve may look effortless, yet many hours are spent
by the fishermen fulfilling this essential work. This often-overlooked
skill is passed down from generation to generation.
A Dying Art
By Helen Daniel
Net repairing in the Algarve may look effortless, yet many hours are spent by the fishermen fulfilling this essential work. This often-overlooked skill is passed down from generation to generation.
"I started fishing at the age of nine," explains Henrique Ferrão, known as Rato, a 57-year-old fisherman from Armação de Pêra. "Wages doubled if you were able to repair nets, so I learnt quickly." With the growing tourist industry in the 1970s came the increase in demand for fish. "The boys loved being on the beach, myself included," Rato points out. "We were encouraged at a young age to leave school and support our families by fishing. Elders told us that our work options were building, catering or fishing, that's all; so I chose fishing."
Armação de Pêra is quiet in the winter. Just the locals and a few foreign residents wander the cobblestone streets and drink in the cafes. The vast stretch of beach from Senhora da Rocha to Galé is deserted, except for a small part that is known as A Praia Dos Pescadores. Here there's a buzz of life, almost like the hustle-bustle of a market. The fishermen have a camaraderie amongst them and a community spirit. "Of course, at times, we do have our disagreements," laughs Rato. "But we are always ready to help each other out." Banter flows between the men, cats and dogs are running around or sleeping peacefully, and eager seagulls flap around the boats and nets. The fishermen's beach is colourful and has a sense of cheerfulness.
It's not all upbeat though, as Rato explains. "The number of boats has dwindled in the last 15 years. There used to be 45 wooden fishing boats here. Now, there are only 12 fibreglass ones. Soon, there will likely be none, and the village fishing tradition may die." Not long ago, the fishermen could supplement their income in the summer by sprucing their boats up, with a good clean and fresh paint, to offer tourists trips to the nearby caves. Unfortunately, this is no longer possible, as new regulations state they cannot use the same boat for both businesses.
"We, as independent fishermen, don't get any support," reveals Rato. "If we don't catch any fish, we don't get any money. If we are ill and cannot work, we get nothing. Without a regular income, we cannot get a mortgage to buy a house. There is no incentive for the youth to carry on the legacy."
In 1976, the nets changed from being made of cotton to being made of nylon. Rato, a lover of the traditional ways, believes nylon nets are worse for the environment. He insists the broken nets found washed up on the beaches do not come from the self-employed fishermen. "We are very careful with our nets, so we rarely lose them. The only way it could happen is if we put them out before a storm, but we always know when a storm is coming."
Rato explains that nylon nets are cheaper to produce than cotton ones, but are terrible for the fish. Once caught, they slip and slide around in the nylon, which slices into them and causes the scales to be damaged. This means the fish suffer more and are less presentable for selling.
A special kind of needle – an agulha – is used to repair the nets. Bonefácio, an 80-year-old fisherman, regularly takes on the net mending and the cleaning of fish for the other fishermen if they don't have time. Too old now to go out to sea, he can often be found on the beach, working from dawn to dusk.
Although the future outlook for the independent fisherman looks bleak, and times can be tough, Rato is proud and jovial. "I love my life. I have worked in the UK. In Edinburgh, I worked for The Scotsman newspaper and have even fried fish in a fish and chip shop in Bath. I had regular wage packets and met some amazing people, but I was always drawn back to Armação de Pêra. Here, I am my own boss. I love being outside on the beach and at sea, using skills I learnt as a child. I can work the hours I want and I have my independence. I would rather be sitting on the beach with the laborious task of hours of net mending in front of me than be anywhere else in the world!"
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