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Aveiro, Portugal


Ricardo Oliveira

Ricardo Oliveira, fisherman

Ricardo Oliveira worked the North Atlantic cod fisheries since he was a teenager. He is joined by his wife Selena and daughter Marcia clams and snails from the mud flats near the shores of Aveiro. When the tide begins to rise, the Oliveira family heads for shore and prepares the day's catch before bringing it to the local wholesale market.

Ricardo will do anything to keep the traditions handed down from generation to generation. Marcia, like most of Aveiro’s younger generation, doesn't feel strongly tied to those traditions. She is seeking work in town or even Lisbon. This would be the first time a member of the Oliveira family will abandon a seafaring way of life.

Nearly a decade after the collapse of the cod fishery, Ricardo and the people of Aveiro remain economic victims of a mis-managed industry. Ricardo and his family know they have very few employment opportunities, especially if they want to cling to their culture and to the memories of a life tied to the sea.


Alvaro Garrido, University of Coimbra

We must care about this memory. It’s important in a point of view of preserving our cultural heritage, our cultural heritage, our identity, the Portuguese identity is strongly connected with the seas, with sea culture. But we have a problem now.

Carl Safina, Blue Ocean Institute

It’s human nature to kind of overdo a good thing and fisheries have done that repeatedly. The history of fisheries is pretty much boom and bust. You find one thing and you drive it down, deplete it and find some new thing, drive it down and deplete.

Aveiro is a small town near the crossroads of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Visitors flock here because of the picturesque location and to for the series of canals and bridges set against classical architecture dating back to the sixteen century that makes the town “the Venice of Portugal.” But for those who call Aveiro home and treasure its traditional way of life remember that it is famous for more than its quaint buildings and scenic canals. Four hundred years ago this was where the world's largest long-distant fishing fleet set sail for North America.

The canals and bridges of Averio
The canals and bridges of Averio

Though aided by the navigational skills developed by early explorers, the crossing was never easy, especially when the fleet reached the treacherous waters of the North Atlantic. But when the boats finally arrived at the fishing grounds off Newfoundland and New England, they found was the richest cod fishery in the world.

Each morning, the fishermen set out in one-man dories. For the next ten hours they hand-lined for cod. Just before sundown, the dorymen returned to the mothership to unload the day's catch and then spend many more hours cleaning and salting the cod. Though the work was hard, this was a proud way of life that helped feed the world for centuries.

As word spread about the size of the fishery, fleets from all over the world joined the hunt. Every year the size of the fleet got bigger and every year the size of the catch increased. Towards the end of the 20th century over three billion pounds of Atlantic Cod were pulled each year from the fertile waters of the North Atlantic.

What happened next was unimaginable. Nets started coming up empty. It turns out that the fleet was catching cod faster than they could reproduce and by the end of the 20th century one of the largest fisheries in the world collapsed. And for the fishermen of Aveiro — the consequences were devastating.

Aveiro’s rusting fishing fleet
Aveiro’s rusting fishing fleet

When the cod fishery collapsed, Aveiro's economy also collapsed. Here along the city's commercial waterfront nearly eighty percent of Portugal's long-distance trawlers rust away in watery graves. At low tide in a nearby tidal basin, hundreds of unemployed fishermen and their families fan out across the mud flats, trying to scratch out a meager living by raking through the exposed seabed to gather small clams and snails. They are paid by the kilo and, on a good day, a family can earn only twenty-five dollars — barely enough to survive.

The locals gather daily at a café known as the witch’s bar. It's a favorite spot for out of work cod fishermen or for those too old to labor on the mud flats. Most afternoons they gather to play cards with old friends and share stories about an unlimited bounty that suddenly disappeared. Later in the day, perhaps after a few drinks, their thoughts become more wistful as they think about how the collapse of a fishery changed the very heart and soul of Aveiro from a thriving seaport to nothing more than a tourist attraction — nothing more than a city of memories.


Read more about The State of the Planet's Oceans:
Introduction | Aveiro | Belize | Calcutta | Dry Tortugas | Greenland | Lima | New Bedford


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