I traveled to Cascais in late February. Unlike northern Europe, which is still frozen, the afternoon sun in this seaside town in central and western Portugal was warm and sunny, with temperatures still struggling to reach 20 degrees and many pedestrians already donning short-sleeved slippers.
Portugal has no shortage of seaside cities, with most of the country bordered by the Atlantic Ocean. But Cascais is more famous and cosmopolitan than many cities, not only because of its proximity to the capital, Lisbon, but also because it retains many of the decorative architecture of the 19th century, when the king chose this fishing village as a royal summer retreat, and aristocracies came to build villas and gardens. More remarkably, The author of the Bond novels, Ian Fleming, worked there and wrote the 1969 film Queen’s Secret Service, which was shot in Cascais.
For many European tourists fresh from the outbreak, Cascais is the perfect destination to escape winter. The city centre is full of Tourists with French and Spanish accents, sitting outdoors enjoying wine and seafood. Restaurants here offer fresh fish, crabs, octopus all year round… The ingredients are almost appetising, given that fishing boats are just a few hundred metres from downtown restaurants, leaving in the middle of the night and arriving in and around the city in the morning.
I was staying close to the sea, and during my morning run I saw fishermen trading with restaurant owners on the pier. The fishermen’s work area is packed with green fishing gear and nets, and they walk back and forth next to the small blue-and-white house.
Carlos is tying the rope
The seaside scenery
I’ve never met a fisherman before, so close to them for the first time. Curiosity led me to their little blue and White House. They didn’t show much enthusiasm for me, a strange Asian girl, glancing casually and then lowering their heads to continue working. I struck up a conversation with a fisherman and said I wanted to learn about their lives. He spoke no English and introduced me to a middle-aged man next to me wearing cool sunglasses.
This is Carlos.
Perhaps because he spoke good English and wore white clothes unsuitable for dirty work, he looked more like a boss. Hearing that I wanted to go out to experience the life of a fisherman, he immediately said yes, but it depends on the weather and sea conditions. Cascais is often windy in winter, so if the waves are high you can’t go out. He asked me to come on Monday after the weekend. If conditions permit, he will take me to the police station for permission.
“Twenty-five euros, it’s all done.” He said.
I met Carlos at the pier at 8:30 on Monday morning. He shook his head and said, “It’s too rough to get out today.” He pointed out the waves in the distance, and sure enough, one by one, he tossed surfers already in practice into the air.
“May I see your fishing boat?” I asked.
Carlos smiles and tilts his head to let me aboard. We sat down and started sculling, and we started talking.
When Carlos was younger, he worked nine to five for the tax bureau. But he loved fishing and surfing, and his heart was always wild. He later joined the force as a narcotics and homicide investigator. Carlos doesn’t have to go after local dealers, because Portugal decriminalized drugs in 2001. I’ve seen at least two shops in the city center, openly selling medical marijuana, not to mention hidden users on the streets.
“What kind of drug dealer do you catch?
“South American drug Lord.” “He said, looking rather proud. The drug lords use Portugal as a springboard to enter the European market. “My life was like a detective in Miami Vice.”
With the pressure of scouting, Carlos prefers the freedom of fishing. While working for the police, he spent 50,000 euros on a fishing boat and added nets, cages and other fishing gear. As soon as he got off work, he would get in his boat and go fishing.
Carlos’s fishing boat is packed with nets. He unfurled his net for me to see. The mesh was so large that the little fish that escaped had a chance to grow. He also catches spider crabs and releases them when he finds they’re female – he’s very concerned about sustainability.
“China has a fishing moratorium in some waters,” I asked. “Does Portugal have one?”
Carlos said Portugal does not have a fishing moratorium, but some species can only be caught during fixed months, such as Spider crabs in February and March, and octopus in July and August. As for normal fish, except manta rays. Carlos shows me some spider crabs he’s caught. They cost 10 euros each. But spider crabs and lobsters are luxury species, subject to a 35% tax.
After watching the boat, we retraced our steps back to shore. Carlos says fishing is a game of fate. Sometimes you don’t get a fish for days on end, or you can’t get out to sea. Sometimes, tens of thousands of euros a day. He mainly catches bass and golden bass, and his customers are local michelin-starred chefs. He sells fish for at least 20 euros a kilo. As his fishing career took off, he quit the police to concentrate on fishing. After 13 years of fishing, he has been able to buy a house in the best part of Cascais. But he clearly feels that there are fewer fish now, and the income that used to approach 20,000 euros a day is now rare.
Fewer and fewer are the fishermen. Carlos says there are about 100 registered fishermen in the area, all men, all middle-aged and his own age. Carlos is 51. His two oldest children, in their early 20s, are at university, and the youngest is 11. He said none of his children wanted to fish, let alone other young men. If no one succeeds, the local fishing industry will soon be extinct.
Much of the fish that Portugal now sells to France and Spain is “pool-raised”. I asked him if he could tell the difference. ‘Of course! ‘The meat was like loose nylon rope,’ he said. ‘There was no stiffness.’
Carolos led me to the back of the dock, where I had seen mountains of fishing nets during my morning run. He dug the net and tools out of the box and began to mend. Whenever he’s not out fishing, he says, he takes time to organize his gear. As a fisherman, first of all, he must be calm, even in the face of strong winds and waves, just as he had been trained in the police station; Second, always be ready when you can’t fish. Many fishermen, he says, spend money on tobacco and alcohol when they can’t go to sea. “It doesn’t last long!”
In the sun, I found a lot of tattoos on his body and asked if there was one about fishing? He pulled off his collar to reveal a pattern resembling a compass marked north, meaning the shore is in the north.
When I asked him if his business had been affected during the pandemic, he said that local television stations had helped fishermen launch campaigns to send fish to their homes. His Instagram account, which has more than 1,000 followers, is filled with videos and photos of him at sea.
Carlos is showing me a mesh of fishing nets
Fresh spider crab
“Did you choose to fish or did the fishing choose you?” I asked.
Carlos looks up and replies seriously: Other fishermen fish for a living. Me? I really do. Don’t forget to include it in your story!