Almadraba: 3000 years of traditional tuna fishing
19 April 2021 | By The Andalusian Agency of Cultural Institutions
Image | Almadraba: a traditional way of catching tuna - Fondo gráfico IAPH
“Almadraba. The historical origins of this ancient intangible cultural heritage still alive in the Andalusian Atlantic coast.”
Traditional tuna fishing or almadraba is a method of fishing for and capturing blue-fin tuna during its annual migration from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean. The origins of blue-fin tuna fishing go back to the Phoenicians, who established fish factories to process fish, especially blue-fin tuna, all along the South Atlantic and Mediterranean coastlines. Under the Roman Empire, the importance of tuna fishing increased to the point where part of the production reached all parts of the Empire in the form of salted fish and, especially, garum, a condiment made from the remains of tuna fish which came to be regarded as a delicacy.
Later on, the Arabs improved the designs of the labyrinth of nets and introduced the tradition of catching tuna using the art of the almadraba (from the Andalusian Arabic almadrába, a place where one hits or fights), a labyrinth of nets placed near the coast, in the migratory passage of tuna from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean for spawning.
In the 15th century the existing tuna fishing areas or almadrabas became the property of the king, who granted rights for their exploitation to the Guzmanes, the counts of Niebla. In 1445, the family was granted the Dukedom of Medina Sidonia, along with an exclusive concession to operate all the almadrabas “… from Odiana to the coast of the kingdom of Granada…”. From that date onwards and for the next four hundred years, the ducal house of Medina Sidonia applied a feudal and monopolistic approach to exploiting the almadrabas with important implications for the socio-economic structures of the regions where they were located.
In 1929, the National Consortium of Tuna Fishing Companies (Consorcio Nacional Almadrabero) was created, setting up another monopoly in the tuna fishing industry. The Consortium became a giant that directly employed almost 6,000 workers, and companies involved in the tuna fishing and processing industry on the south Atlantic coast, from Huelva to Cadiz, were obliged to form part of it.
After the Consortium was dismantled in 1972 due to the decline of the production, all its property and goods were auctioned and the local traditional family tuna fishing businesses came into their own, reintroducing a more local model of operations and management for the workers and the areas where they operated.
Four fishing areas are active nowadays in the Cadiz province: Conil, Barbate, Zahara and Tarifa, being the Japanese the major customers market for the production.
In the 21stcentrury the fishing practice of the Almadrabas is facing different sort of difficulties and threats, linked among other factors to the extension of more mechanized, intensive and cheaper ways of capturing. It’s important to consider that Almadraba is a selective and passive way of fishing, totally artisan, which according to Seville University researcher David Florido (1) is kept alive nowadays due to its “prestige” and its relation to local identity more than anything else.
The Almadrabas are a clear example of the intangible cultural heritage related to the Atlantic Area and they are full of symbolics references, not only in the socio-economic sphere but in the whole live and collective imagination of the local communities. In this regard, traditional tuna fishing can have a major indirect impact on tourism, thanks to its links with ICH experiences and gastronomy, making the area an appealing one for anything related to consuming tuna and its derivatives, offering tourist products such as gastronomic events, tuna weeks, tuna museums and routes, etc. Besides, the main canning industries in the region organise visits to their facilities with exhibitions and demonstrations of almadraba fishing and the cutting or ronqueo of the tuna, as well as tasting events and the sale of products.
Pictures: Fondo gráfico IAPH.
Author: Aniceto Delgado Mendez
Article by Atlantic CultureScape Project Partner, The Andalusian Agency of Cultural Institutions