Fishing has been a thousands-of-years old traditional Algarvian industry. The Romans appreciated the meat of the tuna fish as a special delicacy. At several places on the Algarvian coast remains of repositories can be found, that were used at that time to produce and store the popular Garum , a spicy sauce produced by the fermentation of fish.
Once a key economy of the Algarve
The region could once boast legions of devoted tuna fishermen but the art of tuna fishing has sadly died out in the last decades and with it many of the ingenious fishing methods. Fishermen had a whole array of contraptions such as the “armação”, and different type of siege nets to capture tuna fish as the summer began and shoals of them made their way from the Azores in the Atlantic to spawn in the Mediterranean. These spawn-bound well-fed fish made an impressive catch and such were their numbers that towns such as Vila Real de Santo António in the Algarve’s far eastern corner depended entirely on tuna to sustain their economy.
In several places you can still find evidence of that glorious time: on the mouth of the river Gilão at Quatro Aguas in Tavira there is a museum depicting tuna fishing and the life of the fishermen (Museu da Antiga Armação de Pesca do Atum), and the centre of environmental maritime education in Olhão (CEAM, Centro de Educação Ambiental de Marim) demonstrates the ingenious fishing methods. On the beach Praia do Barril on the Ilha de Tavira you can see an impressive monument, the so called cemetery of anchors (Cemitério das âncoras), built from the anchors that the fishermen used to fix their nets on the ground of the Ria Formosa.
From the 19th century until the second half of the last century the production of canned fish, especially tuna and sardines, was a key industry along the Algarvian coast, providing substantial wealth to cities like Olhão and Portimão. On the harbour at Olhão there were up to 80 canning factories. When canned fish was almost completely substituted by deep frozen fish, this led to a dramatic economic decline in many coastal areas, that has only recently been compensated for by the development of mass tourism. Today there are only two canning factories left in Olhão, where among other things anchovy paste is produced, a well known regional product served with bread and olive oil in most restaurants as a starter.
The best places to buy fresh fish and seafood
Portugal as a whole is a great fish-eating nation with an estimated 40% of the population’s protein intake coming from the Atlantic Ocean. Therefore you will find large counters with an impressive selection in all larger supermarkets. However connoisseurs will prefer to go to the municipal markets in early hours of the morning, especially those in Lagos, Olhão and Quarteira, to buy fresh fish and seafood.
Fish auction in Sagres
One of the best places of its kind in Europe
From Monday to Friday an auction of fish and seafood takes place at 3 p.m. in the fishing port of Sagres, situated in a sheltered bay, where local fishermen sell their catch of the day. This auction is the best of its kind in Portugal and said to be one of the best in Europe, if not in the world, due to the quality of the goods.