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Inside La Lonja, Barcelona's Last Local Fish Market

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“Most people in Barcelona don’t know that there are still fishermen here,” Cristina Caparros says. We are sitting underneath a clock tower at a commercial fishing port at the edge of La Barceloneta, a triangular strip of Barcelona that kisses the ocean. In the 18th century, it used to be a fishermen’s neighborhood.

Today, the area is mostly a beach destination, with some locals, but mostly tourists pouring in daily to lounge on the sandy strip and dip their toes in the water. Unbeknownst to most, hidden away in a corner of the neighborhood, past a security checkpoint, is La Lonja—a full-fledged fish market. And while there are other similar fish markets in town, this is the last and only one in the city where all the catch is procured entirely from local Barcelonian fishermen.

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Photo by Clarissa Wei

“Thirteen years ago, there were almost 100 fishing boats. Now, only nine remain,” Caparros says.

Cristina Caparros comes from a long line of fishermen. As a kid, she would often go out on fishing trips with her father. In adulthood, she dabbled in the corporate world, but eventually made the switch to the family business when she got pregnant. She focuses now on advocacy and on teaching people about the ebbs and flows of the market.

Five days a week, the fishing boats head out at 5 a.m. and throw their nets out within a 15-mile radius of the city. At around 4:30pm, they’ll reconvene back with their catch at the docks, where the fish is loaded up on blue trays, carted into a warehouse, and then pushed on a conveyer belt, where a crowd of buyers has gathered on bleachers overlooking the catches of the day. It’s a Dutch auction set-up, and buyers bid by pressing a remote control. For about an hour, the warehouse lights up with sounds of beeping, as if it were an arcade.

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This wonderful chain of events is not open to the public to enjoy; these buyers are professionals. Many of them are representatives of some of the top restaurants in town, like La Cova Fumada, a popular, neighborhood-y joint that prioritizes seafood. Frequent catches include shrimp, assorted crustaceans, monkfish, mackerel, hake, and octopus. Shellfish is one of the most popular options, with prawns and lobsters usually fetching the highest prices of the day, which can range from 35 to 70 euros per kilogram. Within an hour, all the fish is sold and put on ice, the buyers file out, and the fishermen load up their boats with water and snacks for the next morning’s voyage.

Photo by Clarissa Wei

For the Caparros family, this is a cycle that has repeated itself for four generations. Unfortunately, both the fish and the fisherman are at risk of extinction.

“The generation of my father is the last generation that knows how to fix nets,” Caparros says, pointing at a long pile of fishing nets at the port. This is a repair station, where the nets are mended entirely by hand through a delicate and intricate weaving process. Net repair was an art, a time-consuming task often taken on by specialists. But with the precipitous drop of fishermen, these specialists ceased to exist and fishermen had to resort to doing it themselves.

And as for the fish, the biodiversity of catch along Barcelona’s coast has been severely degraded in recent years. “It was escalated after the Olympic Games in 1992. They started building new ports and they’re also throwing chemicals into the ocean,” Caparros says. Industrial fishing operations have especially put considerable strain on the fisheries. “They’ll put out 70 lines instead of 40,” she says, referring to the fishing lines of the industrial boats. The near doubling of the number of lines has lead to considerable pressure on the ocean ecosystem, simply because each fishing boat is catching more fish per capita. “Because we’re family-owned, part of our work is to regenerate the ocean to preserve it for future generations. Our interest is to be fishing over the years.”

The story of La Lonja isn’t unique to Spain. This is a narrative that is repeating itself all over the world across various food systems. Industrial corporations are more likely to price out small-scale family-owned businesses because of the economies of scale. “Some restaurants are not so focused on the quality of the local fish, instead focusing on having more reservations every day,” she says. "Things are starting to change though. Let’s just hope it’s not too late.”

She says that buyers tend to prefer larger markets like the Central Fish Market in Barcelona, where the fish is sourced from all around the country and from companies of all shapes and sizes. Unlike La Lonja, these markets are more centralized and diversified in their products.

“The fish that comes from our local boats only accounts for 20% of the fish that they’re eating in the city,” Caparros says.

As for the fishermen themselves, the influx of trendy seafood restaurants and high end real estate in La Barceloneta has dramatically raised the costs of living in the neighborhood, incentivizing many to sell their boats and move away. It’s a rather incongruous situation. Many of these restaurants benefit from the tourist influx and buy from La Lonja. On the other hand, the tourists and the increasing trendiness of the neighborhood is pushing fishermen out.

Still, the Caparros family, who owns two of the remaining nine fishing boats, is determined to hang on. Through advocacy work, they hope the market can eventually open to the public so that people can buy directly from the fishermen.

Photo by Clarissa Wei

At around 5 pm, I am taken to where the family’s boats are pulling in and Caparros tells me of a time where when the men came back from a day out in a sea, a crowd of women and the children would congregate at the docks to greet them. “Today, there’s just a few of us.”

We climb onto one of the boats. A couple of restaurants are visible from the deck and I see people dining al fresco in front of large glistening structures, presumably enjoying spreads of seafood—a mainstay in Barcelona’s dining culture. I think back to my decadent meals in the city, with pine nut-flavored cod, tender squid, and gigantic pans of seafood paellas. And I wonder, in retrospect, where in the world the seafood I ate actually came from.

“All the buildings around the market have become so big,” Caparros says, interrupting my train of thought. “People in the city can no longer see us.”

Cristina Caparros leads public fish market tours in both English and Spanish through AirBnB.