INTERVIEW WITH EMPESCA’T : A QUALITY BRAND AND DIRECT SALES SYSTEM TO OBTAIN A FAIR PRICE DRIVEN BY THE FISHERMEN OF L’ESCALA I L’ESTARTIT
In a port on the Costa Brava, north of Barcelona, the association Arts Menors Costa Brava, members of LIFE, understands that the sustainability of their profession does not lie in taking more catches from the sea, but in seeking a greater economic return on the existing ones, giving value to their work and their products. To this end, they decided to change the way they sell their catches, moving away from the current model of fish markets and auctions to sell directly without intermediaries, establishing contracts with end customers at a fixed price per season. On the other hand, Empesca’t is a brand that guarantees the added value of their products, regulated, managed and certified by themselves.
There have been several years of joint work through projects such as Synepesca and now Foodnected, internal discussions among fishermen, exchanges of experiences to visit inspiring models in other countries such as Golion (led by the Syndicat Petit Metier d’Occitanie), meetings with the administration, paperwork and various efforts… in addition to going out fishing! In the last few months work has been done to involve restaurants and agriculture community schemes in the area, who are not considered clients but collaborators because they share the same values and a transforming vision of the current food system.
Marta Cavalle, Mediterranean coordinator of LIFE, recently interviewed one of the fishers behind this project, Isaac Moya, so other LIFE members learn more about him and on Empesca’t.
Isaac, you are a young fisher with a particular background. Please, tell us a little about yourself, your career and how you became a fisher.
I am 37 years old. I ended up being a fisher because of the interest I have always had for the sea. My grandfather had a good relationship with fishermen, he had a boat and he used to go out fishing to bring fish for home. I always went with him and I liked it very much. One day I thought to myself, “If you like the sea, the animals and being in contact with the environment… become a fisherman!”
So I started to ask how one can become one, I quit my job and went to study for two years in l’Ametlla de Mar in 2007. When you leave the school, you still need to be on board for two years to validate the title and become a skipper, so I had to embark on three different boats: one in San Feliu de Guixols, fishing tuna and swordfish with surface longline, and two others with bottom longline. It was very hard, it had nothing to do with going fishing with my grandfather’s little boat.
After two years, I had the title of skipper but I didn’t have a penny, and I needed to buy a boat, which is worth between 30 and 40,000 euros, so I worked as a skipper on a charter yacht, as my title allowed me to do so, until I had enough money to buy a first boat for fishing. It was a very old boat, I left it out of the water at a relative’s house and I would fix it up during winters. Then I started fishing in winter and maybe 7 years later I saw that I was capable and I had some money, and I decided to dedicate myself to fishing 100%.
Fishing brought me more interest and I started working with other projects like the Sepia Project, then we started working with LIFE, we created the association of Arts Menors Costa Brava and in projects like Synepesca or now Foodnected. And from there… you know… I’ve been growing personally and as a fisherman.
Do you believe that fishing in your area is sustainable and environmentally friendly? What actions are in place to support this sustainability?
It is a difficult question to answer, what I know is that we are a small collective of fishers in this port. The important thing for me is that there has been a change of mentality in recent years, people in the past thought that the sea was inexhaustible, but reality has put us in place, we know that resources are limited. This has opened our minds to change the fishing effort and brought us to implement projects and measures to improve fishing and the state of the resource, such as the Sepia project and others.
It is also true that there are other factors that we do not control, such as climate change, pollution… that also affect the state of the sea. The rivers no longer bring as much water and nutrients as they used to. Shell fishing has disappeared from this area, there are many changes that cannot be explained only by overexploitation. The elders are the ones who notice it the most, we don’t catch a tenth of what they used to catch. If we continue at this rate, no one will retire from fishing.
A few times you have told me that there are different ways to become a fisherman….
When I started, I didn’t know how to approach the business project. One possible way would have been to invest in more nets, more hooks, more fishing effort, because, otherwise it is difficult to make ends meet. There are weeks that you can invoice 3000 € but it is not normal, and sometimes we cannot go fishing for weeks. For me, if I earn 1000€ net per month I am happy. There are people who will earn more, but I can’t be sure that they follow the rules to the letter. I don’t want to be illegal, so, as I see that the extractive system cannot go any further, what I am looking for now is to achieve more yield per catch and that is why we have set up Empescat’, in the hope of being able to obtain a 15 to 20% higher economic yield.
Explain to us what is Empesca’t?
“Empesca’t” is a quality brand for our products, regulated, managed and certified by our association Arts Menors Costa Brava. We made this brand to give a name to what we do every day with our way of fishing, using different passive gears seasonally, respecting closures, minimum sizes or effort limits, and promoting good fishing practices and project involvement. The fundamental axis is quality and sustainability, we know the state of the sea and we wanted to bring this added value to the hands of the consumer who appreciates it.
On the other hand, we serve fish without intermediaries, directly at a fair price for us and with greater transparency for consumers.
Tell us about this direct and dignified sale, how does the Empesca’t model differ from the current model in Catalonia?
The model established here in Catalonia is that of the fish market and downward auction. Direct marketing is forbidden. Until now we usually brought the fish from the port to the fish market, 40 km from our house, where an auction sale was generated where wholesalers were buying at a price that was going down. The prices we got were very low and unstable. With Empesca’t we wanted to give a decent price to the boats of the association, we buy our own fish through a company of fishermen that we have set up and through a food contract. It is a contract between the boat and our fishermen’s company where fixed prices are stipulated by species and size per season. The prices have been fixed by the whole association. From the administration they have allowed us to carry out a pilot test in this sense and we can make a 1st sale in our port in a contractual way in a legal way.
In the end, is the way forward for the artisanal fishermen themselves to market their own fish and be price-makers?
I understand that industrial fishing, which takes many kilos to the port daily, needs structure, centralized sales, trucks that go everywhere, etc and the system may work for them. But artisanal fishing, at the end of the day, are small boats with only one person that carry 10-15 kilos of fish per day. It loses all sense to make the same circuit as the one that is carrying a minimum of 200 or 300 kilos, and not be able to differentiate ourselves from them.
Hopefully this initiative will serve to show to other fishing communities with the same difficulties a possible alternative way forward. And this pilot test will become something that all the small-scale fishing communities in Catalonia that need it can take advantage of.
You are fishermen from L’Escala and Estartit, two places where there is no fish market. This is one of the key factors that led you to build this model, isn’t it?
Exactly, it did not make much sense that a fish that is fished in l’Estartit at 11h went to Palamos, with 40 km to get there and 40 km to get back; and the restaurant, which is 100 m from the boat also travels the same 80 km to get it. At least this fish carried 160km on its back when it could have 100 m and could be distributed by bicycle.
Is it the usual fish that we will find in Empesca’t or will you also sell other species of fish maybe not as known for the general public?
Yes, there we have a very important challenge. The best-known species are taken out of our hands (sea bass, dentex, sea bream, monkfish, etc), but then there are many fish species that we catch and there is no demand for them. Taking them to the auction result in selling them with very low prices or even withdrawn because no one has bought them. Therefore, last week we served 6 kilos of moray eels to the restaurant “Celler de Can Roca”, we explained the problem to them, that it is a specie that we believe that with climate change is rising but, however, we have no price in the market. They took the challenge and they are developing some recipes for us to learn to eat the moray eel and consume it. Other species can be starry ray, mullets, greater weever, Atlantic stargazer, etc. All of them if they are well cooked they are very good!
Building a community of collaborators who understand and share the philosophy is key to the success of the model, isn’t it?
The idea behind it is to give value to the local product, fished in an artisanal and sustainable way. We have looked for restaurants or community supported agricultural schemes that understand our philosophy, share it and value the quality of the product that we can bring to them. We have not only looked for buyers, but we want these people to own the project and to transmit our values and way we fish to the consumers.
We are very happy with the response we have had so far. For the moment we have not made or wanted to make too much noise because we are in a pilot test, and if we have too much demand and not enough supply it could be counterproductive. But we are very happy and proud, especially seeing the bond that is established with customers, both in restaurants and in the families of the community supported schemes. We didn’t have this relationship before and now they ask us how we caught that fish and we have an open dialogue with them. It is very enriching for both sides, I think!
You have started just now, what is the vision for the future?
Our idea is to be able to go fishing “upon request” because we believe that every fish that has not been ordered, which means that nobody wants it, is better if it is in the sea than in a bucket around the country. This is the dream, although it will be difficult to achieve it. We have started and we are very happy because the prospects are good, we have started better than we thought. The project is alive and we will adapt to whatever comes up.
Anything else you would like to share?
Just a big thank you to LIFE. We need more people to support us like you do. We need organizations like you to accompany us in the way with these projects and make our ideas a reality so that we can dream of a better future.
Any message to the consumers?
The consumer has to be genuine and relay on themselves when it comes to buying. People who are concerned about the environment should not wait for the politician to tell them that they have to do things this or the other way. They can be changemakers themselves. Change can come from the bottom up!