Local fishers teach us about climate change impacts on the northern Catalan coast

Figure 1. View of the artisanal fishing docks in Roses, Costa Brava

On April 9th, 2021, I arrived in Costa Brava, on the northern Catalan coast (Spain), to collect LICCI data from local artisanal fishers’ perspectives for my master’s thesis. I was seeking to learn how climate change affected local fishers and how fishers responded to climate change effects. To do so, I decided to visit six coastal towns and villages: Roses, l’Escala, l’Estartit, Palamós, Sant Feliu de Guíxols, and Blanes.

The Northern Catalan coast, called Costa Brava, is known for being one of the favourite touristic spots in the Mediterranean Sea. Currently, most of Costa Brava’s communities depend on touristic revenue, which is also the primary source of employment. As such, tourism is also the main driver of urban expansion, heavily shaping the coastal landscape to meet the demands of tourists that every year arrive in Costa Brava, enticed by its blue waters and picturesque old towns. As coastal towns build more and more infrastructure to dock recreational vessels, the local artisanal fishing fleet becomes smaller and smaller. In Costa Brava’s tourist-oriented urban landscapes, artisanal fishers appear as archaic figures that preserve the livelihood of their ancestors. For many fishers, fishing is a family trade, sometimes spawning several generations. However, younger generations are less interested in entering the fishing sector, producing a lack of generational replacement, an ageing population of artisanal fishers, and a diminishing fishing fleet.

Artisanal fishers use small boats, usually boarded by themselves alone or, in a few instances, no more than four people. They use passive fishing gear, namely, some types of longline (palangre and palangró), traps (nanses and cadups), gillnets (soltes), trammel nets (tresmalls), and combinations of both (bolero nets). The only active fishing gear that is considered artisanal is the sand eel seine (sonsera). Artisanal fishing techniques are characterized as being more selective and requiring relatively more minor machinery than industrial techniques. These techniques have only suffered a few changes in the last 100 years: now fishers use nylon instead of cotton, engines instead of sails, and dock their boats on the pier instead of pulling them onto the beach.

In each of the villages that I visited, artisanal fishers were eager to tell me about their lives in the sea and the environmental and social problems they were facing. In total, I conducted 37 interviews, of which 27 were centred on LICCIs and the others on contextual data.

Local observations of climate change impacts

Figure 2. A fisherman´s catch of the day using passive nets

The results of this research show how artisanal fishers perceive numerous “cascading” impacts across the physical, biological, and human systems that start at the climatic level. Most of these changes originate with changes in the wind, storms, temperature, and rainfall. Climatic changes produce subsequent cascading impacts that ultimately affect artisanal fishers’ livelihoods. Most of the mentioned impacts match previous scientific studies (e. g., increased rainfall intensity, mass mortality of benthic species, “tropicalization” of marine animal species, among many others). Additionally, artisanal fishers associate climate change with other phenomena that have been less reported or have found less consensus in the scientific literature, such as the increase in extreme storm frequency or the link between the increase of rainfall intensity and the overflow of local wastewater treatment plants.

In addition, some artisanal fishers connect the shortening of the duration of strong winds (namely, the northern Tramuntana wind) with a disruption of the equilibrium between fishers and natural cycles of regeneration. This strong wind used to blow for long periods, especially during the winter, during which artisanal fishers were unable to fish and had to stay ashore. According to the fishers, the shortening of northern wind periods has deprived the sea of its resting period. Less wind has allowed fishers to continue fishing during the winter, inflicting adverse effects on marine species.

Livelihood impacts and local responses

For the fishers, the most concerning problem was the vast decrease of catch, which often translated into income decreases. Although the fleet had been steadily decreasing for decades, fishers still experience diminishing catches. Artisanal fishers reported a complex combination of different drivers for this problem: pollution, climate change, and overfishing by recreational and industrial fishers, among others. In a place with such a diverse combination of environmental pressures, it is hard to get a clear picture of the causes of this issue and how they interact with each other.

Figure 3. A fisherman builds octopus traps using a special design made by himself

Fishers respond to decreases in catch and other LICCIs by engaging in individual and collective local coping and adaptation strategies. Most fishers respond individually by temporarily or permanently changing target species, thus shifting fishing pressure into other more available and marketable species. As for collective responses, fishers are starting to engage in co-management projects. They limit and organize their catch of certain species in agreement with a committee composed of fishers, scientific institutions, environmentalist associations, and public administration representatives. We found that the sand eel co-management plan is highly regarded by sand eel seiners, which expressed higher compliance, a sense of autonomy, and income increases. Additionally, sand eel seiners reported fewer conflicts among fishers and increased collaborative behaviour, thus, an enhancement of their social capital. While emerging co-management practices have produced good results so far, they are still limited, as many species are sought by recreational and industrial fishers that are not involved.

In conclusion, artisanal fishers’ livelihoods in Costa Brava are experiencing the effects of climate change as part of a more extensive combination of environmental pressures. As climate change effects are expected to rise in the coming years, artisanal fishers will face more pronounced impacts on marine species. Local responses to these changes will be essential to protect marine ecosystems and to preserve local artisanal fisheries. Promoting co-management plans, increasing control over recreational fishers, or creating a better market environment for newly abundant marine species are strategies that could help preserve local fishers’ livelihoods. At the same time, incorporating fishers’ observations to current climate change research could complement modelling, and natural science works with locally grounded data, advancing our understanding of the drivers of change in small-scale fisheries.

Claudia Geffner-Fuenmayor