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The Glittering Harvest of the Past.

Blue Tunny, or Tuna, have been caught off the Algarve coast for over 6 centuries. A fully-grown Thunnus thynnus can be up to 3m in length, and occasionally a specimen of up to 5m has been caught.

tuna.GIF (25800 bytes)

These fish travel in schools in open surface waters, and are seldom found at a depth greater than 100m.

The Tuna head in from the open Atlantic to spawn in the Mediterranean during May and June. In July and August, they make the reverse journey. As they travel the same routes in and out at the same time every year, just off the southern shores of Europe, their capture became a special feature.

As early as the end of the 13th century Tuna fishing was declared a crown monopoly, and by the end of the 15th century was overtaking that of Whaling as the chief income of the fishermen of the Algarve. In 1485, the great quantity of Tuna caught caused many towns, such as Lagos, to arrange the salting of the profusion, so that the surplus could be exported.

It was one of the chief tasks of visiting crown ministers and officials to check that all was well with the great Tuna Net stations of the South. There were 6 working nets off Lagos alone in 1586, when Sir Francis Drake descended on the Algarve and destroyed as many of these Tuna stations as possible, in order to hinder the provisioning of the Armada.

The late 1960’s saw only five nets still working, and the one off the Cape of Santa Maria, Faro, was only allowed to take the fish on the eastward journey. The rest, further east, off Livromento, Luz de Tavira, Medo das Cascas and Abóbora could also take the inferior tuna, heading west, that had already spawned.

The fish were caught in a special way, in immense funnel nets. The schools were guided into these nets, called "Almadrava", then easily transferred into small boats and taken ashore.

Tunanet.GIF (23423 bytes)Drawing of "Harvesting the Tuna"
copied from an old Woodcut print.

Such an elaborate apparatus for taking the Tuna consisted of over 6 miles of netting, occupying over two and a half square miles of water surface, and using over 40 miles of cable. Hundreds of great bower anchors fixed it to the sea floor, about 4 to 5 miles offshore. Thousands of cork floats supported the upper edge, near the surface.
The expense of building and maintaining such a net was enormous, especially as they used to suffer as much as a 50% depreciation during the five-month season. The other seven months of the year, they required a large storehouse, called an "Armação".
The enormous fixed net had two arms, which arched away from each other, one seaward, and the other toward the shore. Each arm was between 3 to 10 Km in length, and reached down into the water for about 35m.
Swimming in, between them, the tuna entered a chamber, divided into three compartments. Two men were stationed in a small boat, outside the first chamber, to close it off with a net once a school of tuna had entered the trap. Another two men waited outside the second compartment to close that off, after the fish had passed them. This was then sealed with a double net, the outer layer blocking the way out, and the inner one now lying beneath the school. The inner one was then lifted, bringing the fish to the surface in a panic. On a platform, just above water level, groups of men were waiting to gaff them and the fish were hooked out of the trap into small boats waiting round the edge to take the catch ashore.

The remnants of this once important way of life of the "Royal Company of the Fishermen of the Kingdom of the Algarve" are now only found in place names such as Armação de Pêra, and in the ruins of the storage buildings similar to those still apparent at Boca do Rio.

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The 17th/18th century Armação at Boca do Rio

Article and illustrations by kind permission of the author.
First published in Insight, June 1999, Volume 2, Issue 2 - the quarterly magazine of A.F.P.O.P. the Association of the Foreign Property Owners of Portugal.

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Copyright © 1999 Vale Grifo
Last modified: June 04, 2007