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Eat up that shrimp cocktail and give thanks for fishermen. Order those prawns grilled, salted or in a paella and bow down before these lords of the sea.

An exaggeration? Look at it this way: whether it’s winter –and you’re on a sofa in front of a TV screen with the heat on immersed in dolce far niente– or summer and you’re hopelessly sweating (with a litre of slushee and soaking your feet in a washbasin of cold water), there are fisherman at work in the middle of the sea. Ten or more hours each day.

Whether you’re jogging in your fluorescent shirt, or watching a movie in Dolby Surround with your girlfriend, surfing the Web for the perfect holiday, they, the fishermen, are almost certainly at work, far from the coast, casting their nets, tying knots, intent on convincing the Mediterranean to spew forth its delicacies.

Your life is lived on land while they inhabit another universe along the coast. Ten hours of sea, sea, sea.

For the four crew members of the Estrella del Sur III that’s just normal. Theirs is one of the many boats that sail each day from Palamós, on the coast of Girona province, to track down the red shrimp (gamba roja).

The Mediterranean has some 150 species of shrimp and this is one of them. The experts swear that this crustacean born in Catalonia is special for its intense flavour, bright red colour, and strong shell. Let’s say its a VIP shrimp.

Now it’s half past six in the morning in the port. It’s still dark but already the engines of the boats are running. To find the red shrimp we are going to sail 40 kilometres offshore. It’s there that these shrimp wander, with their long legs and penetrating eyes, at depths of between 300 and 2,500 metres. To move about better, they use their antennas as sensors.

When the sailors –Toni (49), Camilo (56), Juan (53) and the captain, Xavier (46)– locate the perfect fishing ground, they let loose 70 metres of net to the bottom of the sea. The method is called trawling, and the net, which is shaped like a giant pocket, will move along the sea bottom for the whole voyage to trap as many shellfish as possible. Until it finally reaches port, the boat will never stop.

Today they are hoping to find some 70 kilos of red shrimp, far from the 150 that the sea gives up in the best months: May, July and August. Xavier Miró explains this in the boat’s cabin, a technological headquarters from which he is continually changing the course and speed of his craft. After consulting computers, watches and gauges, he makes all kinds of manoeuvres so that the net will never close. He’s like a dentist keeping a patient’s mouth open so as to be able to work.

But dentistry has little to do with Xavier’s story. Engineering does.

In November of 1993 Xavier’s father died in an accident.  Xavier was 23 at the time and a fourth-year student of Civil Engineering, and he got the news at his dorm in Barcelona, far from his native Palamós. But the call changed his life, because a month and many sleepless nights later he decided to leave the classroom and take charge of the Estrella del Sur. This was the name his father had given to his first fishing boat, bought in 1970, the same year Xavier was born.

“That’s why I’m a rara avis on the sea,” he says with a smile, proud of this exotic mix.

The captain is still at the controls as he shows some amplified images from NASA. You can clearly see the Catalan part of the Gulf of Lion where the red shrimp lives. In this gulf the water flows counter-clockwise, which enriches the underwater sediments that feed and distinguish this Catalan crustacean.

And speaking of biology, here are a few more facts: for example, that only 10% of this species are males, that their maximum age is five years (the older ones are larger and more expensive), and that it’s useless to throw them back into the sea because they are dead as soon as they leave it.

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It’s almost half past nine in the morning (there are still eight hours before getting home) and in the distance can be seen the snow-topped Pyrenees. Your lips taste salty and the sea gently rocks the boat. On its deck, Toni and Juan have bloody hands: they are cleaning fish for the midday meal.

“From Tuesday to Friday we eat what he have fished the day before,” says Toni, wearing a dark sweat suit, 14 years at sea and a perpetual tan. He’s in the galley and today will prepare a suquet de Pintarroja: hazelnuts, fried bread, peppers, potato, tomato and garlic. Delicious, with fish that costs three euros a kilo.

“Does your favourite dish have shrimp?”, we ask him.

“It’s steak tartar,” he answers with a loud laugh.

By 11 everything is ready and it’s time to serve the guests: this mix of fishing and tourism is a first-hand introduction to what it’s like to be a fisherman in Catalonia. It has attracted Swiss fishermen; the mayor of a Catalan town called Guissona, who had recently gotten married; or those country folk from Banyoles who came aboard bearing wine, cava and whiskey. Sixteen people in total since 2015 when the Estrella del Sur III became part of the program, which includes another eight boats from Palamós.

After the banquet things are more relaxed. Time for a siesta, sunbathing or some small repairs to keep the craft shipshape. It’s an obstacle course that the sailors get round with agility. A An assembly of ropes and objects where everything is eventually tied up and fitted. That’s the only way to resist the swaying.

At half past one (after seven hours of work), the day’s second  key moment: the four fishermen pull up their net to see what their haul has been. Today more than 60 kilos, to be sold in market at 30 euros per kilo.

By five the Costa Brava is closer. And at half past five, the engine is finally turned off, the floor stops swaying, and the fishermen take off their boots. It’s been ten hours. We’re home.

 

Photo: Alexander Castro