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To get the freshest fish in Lisbon, you should head 20 minutes out of the city to the Caparica beaches, where teams of fishermen practise the ancient art of xávega, or traditional trawl fishing, before selling their catch at improvised stalls.
Every day around noon, Mario Raimundo’s crew meets in front of the beachside metal shed where their equipment is stored. Raimundo is usually the first one to arrive, followed closely by an old friend, also called Mario, who’s an expert at untangling and repairing nets. As trivial as this may sound, the nets are monstrous things and a single hole can ruin a whole day of fishing, which makes Mario a very valued crew member.
If the sea seems friendly, they head out to the beach. Mario Raimundo does this small trip on his tractor, carrying the net and a bunch of local children who have been eagerly awaiting this moment. Mario lets them help with the fishing (although he doesn’t really need it) in exchange for pocket money.
The boat, S. José, is named after Mario’s stepdad, who taught him the xávega art and led the crew before him. When José passed away, he left the boat and two tractors to Mario’s mother, who is now 96 years old. She used to help with the fishing, but nowadays she prefers to watch.
Five men board the boat, carrying the fishing net and oars, while the rest of the assembled group – women and children included – push it to the sea. Local legislation dictates that the boat engine cannot be used right off the beach, so the men take turns rowing until the recreational area is left behind. This is the hard part, the one that makes them wish for more helping hands.
Once the boat reaches the red floater marking the dropping point, the men carefully unfold the fishing net and drop it into the ocean while navigating parallel to shore. They do this for a few hundred metres, until there’s no net left in the boat, before heading back to the beach.
What follows seems to be a long wait, with the tractors towing the long cables attached to the fishing net. In the old days, before the tractors, about twenty men were needed for the task. Usually, it’s during the towing that the beachgoers take notice and start getting closer to the action.
Once the net reaches the shore, brimming with fish, seagulls circling, the beach comes alive with excitement. The catch is not always so good, however. Normally, fishermen choose where to cast their nets according to what they hope to catch. That’s not the case in xávega fishing. Xávega is always done the way Raimundo’s crew does it, with fishermen dragging a huge fishing net back to land, catching all the fish close to shore – which can be plenty or, on a bad day, none at all.
The fishermen of Costa da Caparica are among the country’s remaining few to practice xávega, which is also called ‘blind fishing’. Ask them what they’re hoping to catch and the stock response is: “I’ll let you know afterwards”.
Most xávega crews operate at night, when fish roam closer to shore. Raimundo, a weathered veteran with more than 30 fishing years under his belt, trades profit for sunshine. On this particular day, though, he has an order to fill: 30 crates of mackerel. His crew hastily sets them apart. The rest of the fish is to be sold on the spot at good prices, which everyone is well aware of – there is much elbow-brushing among the beachgoers, all of them with smartphones and cameras on hand.
It is said that job satisfaction comes from a balance between money earned and personal achievement. What xávega fishing lacks in the salaries department, it certainly makes up in recognition. While they’re sorting and selling fish, the fishermen are local stars, with the whole beach fighting for their attention – children included, who innocently see this as a chance to feed the seagulls. The fishermen play along, handing them small fish that aren’t fit for sale.
Unfortunately, this scene generally only plays out in the summer months. The rest of the year, the fishermen lead a lonely life, left to face the cold wind and sea by themselves. That’s partly why the xávega art is slowly dying out. You might want to take the time to witness this cultural legacy first-hand while you still can.