Producers of the famous Ria Formosa shellfish today protested outside the regional office of the Portuguese Institute of Ocean and Atmosphere, in Olhão .
Yesterday 500 shellfishermen had attended a meeting in Olhão's municipal auditorium to voice their anger at the sudden downgrading of their traditional shellfish harvesting banks which meant that many now are unable to sell their harvest on the open market.
The shellfishermen are protesting at a government edict that was issued with no consultation at all with the affected parties.
The government blames Brussels which it claims had the sea water tested last year, in secret. The water failed to come up to EU standards. The government also claims that IPMA endorsed the orders from Brussels and has tried thus to distance itself from the fray.
This new classifications could be disastrous for the 2,500 people dependent on the shellfish banks for their way of life and their incomes. Overall the Ria Formosa has been downgraded from A and B classification, to predominantly grade C, the lowest grade which prevents sale of any catch to the public even after cleaning the shellfish in special tanks.
Shellfishermen leaders said much of the problem is the government’s in the first place as it condones the dumping of untreated sewage and chemically treated into the Ria Formosa which is meant to be a highly protected natural area.
The new mayor of Olhão managed to speak yesterday to the Secretary of State in charge and reported back that the downgrading arose following an inspection by European Union employees last September.
"This inspection was in the face of noncompliance from the IPMA in the methods it used to classify such areas. So the EU ordered new methods to be used, or close the whole industry. Olhão mayor António Pina believes that this situation scared the government which wanted swiftly to resolve the issue and ordered the downgrading of the whole area, in the full knowledge of the damage this would do to those dependent on the industry.
“The Secretary of State suggested that further analysis was undertaken to resolve the situation but this would take six months - how do people live during this period?" said Pina, acutely aware that the laying off of 2,000 direct and many more indirect workers would be disastrous for Olhão and the wider Algarve where unemployment already is nudging 100,000.
The Communist Party has announced that it will present a legislative initiative in Parliament, with short-term measures to ensure that the shellfishermen can continue as before. It suggests also that in the medium to long term the government should take the Ria Formosa seriously, particularly with regard to the long promised dredging which was announced 13 years ago and has failed to be done."
The Mayor of Olhão said the negotiation now is between Portugal’s government and Brussels and said the government should have done more to avoid this potentially tragic status quo.
The areas affected include the Ria Formosa but cover the shores and islands between Vila Real de Santo António and Olhão where at least 2,500 depend on the shellfish trade, however sewage has been flowing, unchecked, for years with gullible diners tucking into the local produce, unaware of the underlying problems.
With a long term lack of adequate sewage treatment facilities and official denial there is a health issue, the subject is now in play as Brussels condems the seafood as unfit to be sold to the public.
At this afternoon’s characteristically subdued rally, the shellfishermen from Olhão and the islands gathered. The mood was gloomy and there was deep suspicion among some members that a bigger play was being enacted.
Has the government been complicit, rather than just inefficient in downgrading the sensitive shellfish breeding areas prior to the expected gas drilling and production off the Ria Formosa?
Some shellfishermen think this may be the case although many are unconcerned about the government’s gas plans and think that any drilling rigs will be far enough away for any harm to come to their traditional shellfish beds. With tides and currents at play this can never be the case.
This is a handy theory for the suspicous as it would be highly convenient for the oil companies not to have to pay any future claims of loss of income should the worst happen and they cause pollution.
However, most shellfishermen and locals assembled in Olhão believe the sewage problem to be the cause and are concerned at the sudden downgrading of key production areas, blaming inaccurate testing in the past and a lack of investment in treatment plant - if sewage and decomposition enzymes are pumped into the sea this clearly will affect water quality. The answer lies in successful sewage treatment and carrying out the long-awaited dredging.
There needs to be a political solution soon as Olhão's predominant industry is its locally reared shellfish, attracting tourists from all over the world to its summer seafood festival and providing a low-paid but traditional way of life for those who often know no other.