The Portuguese and their fish Part I: bacalhau, Boston and business

Why Portugal buys its cod from the Norwegians and Russians
Why you may not get to eat the fish that you order
How the EU catch has been shrinking but the Portuguese catch has grown


The Portuguese have been eating salt cod for 500 years or more

Portugal, with its 942 km. of mainland coastline, has always been a seafaring nation. Its pioneering navigators began charting the Atlantic before Christopher Columbus was born. The conquest of the sea and the harvesting of its fish are cornerstones of Portuguese culture and diet. The Portuguese consume around 60 kilos of fish per head per annum, more than any other nation in Europe. Only the Japanese and the Icelanders eat more.

In days gone by, Portuguese fishermen would vie with each other to set records – who could stay at sea longest; who could bring home the most Atlantic cod. Freshly caught cod was preserved and transformed through salting and drying into bacalhau, Portugal’s national dish. It is said that there is a different bacalhau recipe for every day of the year.

The tradition of salting and drying cod dates from the time of the Vikings. By the beginning of the 16th century, Portuguese and Basque fishermen, with the benefit of improved ships and navigation, had discovered and begun to exploit the huge cod fisheries of Newfoundland’s Grand Banks. The fish would be salted immediately after capture, then dried after the ships had returned to port. Despite skirmishes with the English, who were also irresistibly drawn to the bounty of these waters, the Iberians continued to fish there right up until the Spanish armada at the end of the 16th century. The Spanish defeat led to the retreat of the Iberian fleets and to the domination of the fisheries by the English and French.

Preserving the supply chain

To satisfy growing domestic demand, the Iberians turned to the Atlantic’s other cod fishery, in the Northeast. Kristiansund in Norway soon became a major hub in the international cod trade. Nowadays much of Portugal’s bacalhau is purchased from the Norwegians and Russians, but some Portuguese vessels still fish for Northeast Atlantic cod under special treaty.

The tradition of eating bacalhau at Christmas and Easter was originally based on religion. Red meat was forbidden by the Catholic Church on certain red-letter days, so fish became the alternative. Over time, Christmas bacalhau has become a food tradition in its own right, not only in Portugal and the Basque country, but wherever these Iberians have settled. Norway’s biggest seafood export to Brazil, for example, is dried cod. Whether as a result of the Iberian influence or not, bacalhau or klippfisk is even a popular traditional Christmas dinner in parts of Norway and Sweden.

The biomass of the Northeast Atlantic cod stock was estimated in 2012 to be at its highest level since observations began a century earlier. This is in stark contrast to the fate of the Northwestern Atlantic stock. This suffered a catastrophic collapse in the early 1990’s, brought about by the introduction of large-scale factory trawlers in the 1950’s and the subsequent decades of over-fishing and mismanagement. Today, many years after the 1992 moratorium on further fishing, stocks remain at only 1% of 1980’s levels, and may never recover.

The price of fish – but what fish?

While bacalhau is still very much still a staple of Lisbon restaurant menus, scrod on today’s Boston menu is likely to be hake, haddock or another white fish, and Boston cod either a frozen import from Alaska or Norway, or another fish altogether.

In fact, in New England, it’s a toss-up whether you will be served the fish that you have ordered, however it may be labelled. A 2011 Boston Globe survey used DNA analysis to check the accuracy of labelling of fish species in local restaurants, and found that in nearly 50% of cases – 87 out of 183 – there was something fishy about the fish. It was being misrepresented as another, more expensive species.

This is a problem not only in American restaurants, but all the way up the supply chain, and across national boundaries. A similar study of the fish sold at supermarkets in Spain showed that 10% were mislabelled. In particular, Vietnamese catfish and Pacific grenadier were being passed off as hake, Spain’s most popular fish. This is perhaps less of a problem in Portugal, where people really know their fish.

The Portuguese commercial fishing sector

As recently as 1960, agriculture and fishing made up 25% of Portuguese GNP. The same sector now represents less than 2.5%. This has more to do with the diversification and growth of the Portuguese economy than with the decline of fishing. Despite a general decline in EU catches, Portugal’s tonnage has actually remained stable and its share of the EU total has grown. One benefit is the sheer size of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Thanks to the inclusion of the waters around Madeira and the Azores, it is, at 1.7 million sq. km. already the third largest in the EU (after France and the UK), and the government is campaigning to make it significantly larger. Portugal jealously guards its fisheries, and has even seized Spanish vessels that cross the disputed Southern border of the EEZ to fish around the Savage Islands, north of the Canaries.

Fishing fleets throughout Europe have been struggling with deep structural change. From 2001 to 2010, the total catch of the EU-27 fell by nearly 29%, from 6.79m to 4.92m tonnes. In an era of generally increased regulation and declining stocks, some nations have mirrored the declining trend, while others have managed to maintain or even increase their catch. According to Eurostat, Iceland shows the largest decline, from 2m to 1.06m tonnes. Denmark also showed a large decline, from 1.5m to 828k. Norway, with its privileged access to Northeast cod, remained by far the EU’s biggest fishing nation, with only a very small decline from 2.7m to 2.56m tonnes.

Spain, with the EU’s largest fleet – twice the size of France or UK – has productivity issues possibly related to high levels of government subsidy. Its catch declined from 1.06m to 740k tonnes, while France and UK together declined by a comparable percentage, but from the much higher level of 1.45m tonnes.

Portugal, despite its shrinking fleet numbers, nonetheless managed a modest increase in its catch from 198k to 223k tonnes. Even so, Portugal’s voracious appetite for fish means that domestic demand remains much higher than the size of its catch.

Part of the challenge is to find the investment required in order to continue modernizing the fleet, a significant proportion of which still need better preservation methods, automated work systems, electronic navigation and fish detection, but new investment is difficult to justify when catches generally are shrinking.

In 2004, 87% of Portugal’s fleet were smaller, traditional vessels. Although these boats only capture 8% of total tonnage, their greater flexibility in terms of fishing methods and target catches means that the commercial value of the catch remains significant.

Factoring in the need for investment and the dramatic world growth in supplies of cheaper farmed fish, it is no surprise that some once-proud Portuguese fishermen are mothballing their boats and retiring from the sea.

John Tranmer
September 2013

One Response to “The Portuguese and their fish Part I: bacalhau, Boston and business”

  1. Miguel  on September 12th, 2013

    “Portugal jealously guards its fisheries, and has even seized Spanish vessels that cross the disputed Southern border of the EEZ to fish around the Savage Islands, north of the Canaries”

    During the silly season, not only did the Spanish government came again with the thesis of Gibraltar belonging to Spain, but the Spanish maneuvers are coming further SW and conflicting with the Portuguese territory, with the islands Selvagens, located north of the Canaries.
    In July the Spanish government officially claimed to the UN this archipelago is not composed of islands but of rocks! They also say that these don’t belong to Portugal.
    This is why the Portuguese President made a
    visit there in July and was the first president to sleep there. (At the time these facts were not know and this visit was not regarded seriously.)
    An interesting chronology of the conflict is available from “Público”. (

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