Arte Xávega is a traditional form of fishing that involves encircling and dragging the fish with a net. This fishing style is also simply called “Arte” (which translates to art) by fishermen from central Portugal while in the south it’s called Xávega.
What is Arte Xávega?
The Arte Xávega fishing technique involves launching a net on the high seas, 2 to 4 km from the coast. The net has two sleeves, a bag where the fish is and two cables that hold the sleeves. One of the sleeves is attached to one of the tractors on the beach. The other sleeve goes on the boat, the fishermen throw the net into the sea, but keeping the handle of the sleeve on the boat. After going around the school, the boat returns to the shore and attaches the second sleeve to a second tractor on the beach.
The two tractors slowly pull the net towards the shore, collecting the fish that are inside the net. In the past, the net was pulled by a joint of oxen or even by men. Up to 12 oxen joints were needed to pull the net, which the fishermen rented from farmers in the region. When human force was used to pull the net, 40 to 80 people were needed. We can’t even imagine the effort it took to pull the net.
When the fish is taken from the net, it is separated according to the size and type of fish, and then placed in small batches to be auctioned and sold by the sticks. You can also buy the fish directly from the fishermen, as soon as it reaches the beach, as is often the case during the bathing season.
Where is Arte Xavega traditional?
Arte Xávega is not an exclusive tradition of Portugal, it was practiced in Galicia and Andalusia, especially in Malaga where it’s called Jábega, and even in Morocco. The word Xávega itself derives from the word Xabaka, which in Arabic means net.
No one is certain of the time this fishing began to be practiced, but it is thought that it started to expand to Andalusia and the Algarve and then to the entire coastline of Portugal. Yet, there are differences between the Arte Xávega practiced in the Algarve and in the Center of Portugal. The boats in the center are more half moon like, with the bow higher than the pulp, in order to face the rough sea of the north, and there are also small differences in the network. In the Algarve the boats are straighter since the sea is calmer and sometimes the drag was done for the boat itself.
Arte Xávega cannot be practiced on any type of coast, it can only be practiced on beaches where the seabed is sandy and on beaches that allow the maneuvers. This applies to almost the entire Portuguese coast, however, it is more traditional between Espinho and Sesimbra and the Algarve.
Nowadays, it is a practice in disuse due to the financial difficulties and the lack of adherence from young people as it is a risky profession. But there are still some fishing communities doing Arte Xávega, especially on beaches that are seaside resorts and that attract vacationers. The main beaches with Arte Xávega are: Espinho, Torreira, Vagos, Lagos, Tocha, Vieira de Leiria, Praia de Mira, Fonte da Telha, Sesimbra, and Lagos
Best places to see Arte Xávega
One of the best places to watch Arte Xávega is in Praia de Mira. During the summer months, when the sea is calm more often, several boats leave to fish. Depending on the sea, they may come loaded with fish and are accompanied by hundreds of seagulls. Upon arrival, a group of curious people is usually waiting to see how the fishing went, and some are interested in buying fresh fish!
It is a very interesting experience, following the whole process, especially seeing the net full of fish and of course buying fresh fish to cook for lunch.
At Mira beach, boats leave early, around 6/7 am. Returning about 30 to 40 minutes later, after that it takes 1h30 to 2 hours to pull the net out, and the total process can take 3 to 4 hours. If the sea is favorable and there is an abundance of fish, several Xávega campaigns are carried out.
When we went to Mira beach, we watched Arte Xávega on several days and strongly advise the experience, we just didn’t buy fish because we had nowhere to cook which was a shame.
There are several beaches in Portugal promoting Arte Xávega as a tourist attraction. In Nazaré, the Xávega Art recreation started every Saturday in May and June. There are also other municipalities promoting Arte Xávega as Intangible Heritage such as Fonte da Telha, Costa da Caparica and Meia Praia in Lagos.
When is the best time to watch Arte Xavega?
The Xávega art is a seasonal fishery that depends absolutely on sea conditions. As the boats, called the Xávegas, leave directly from the beach, having to face the breaking of the waves, if the sea is too rough it becomes impossible to go out to sea. This may happen even during the summer season.
In addition to the sea conditions, Arte Xávega is limited by the ecosystem and the presence of fish. Part of the species caught are migratory like sardines and only come at certain times of the year, which are called Safras. Usually, Arte Xávega is performed from March to November, the time of the harvests, and with the best weather conditions.
Therefore, the best time of the year to see Arte Xávega is during the bathing season from June to August.
How to buy the fish?
One of the best parts of going to watch Arte Xávega is the possibility of buying fresh fish at the end of fishing. It is one of the best luxuries in the world to be able to eat fresh grilled fish. And it is not very expensive, in fact, it is much cheaper than in fisheries or markets.
So how should you buy fish after the launch of Xávega? … As we mentioned after the net was collected by the tractors, the fish is separated into groups. At Mira beach, whoever wants to buy fish, simply has to talk to the person in charge and negotiate the price, which mainly depends on the quantity of fish caught. It is easy to identify who is responsible, as they are usually handing out bags of fish and receiving money. Do not be afraid to take chances, just do as other people are doing, especially the elderly.
In other beaches, the sale of the fish can be made through an auction to the people who are on the beach, including fishmongers that later sell it next to the beach or in an itinerant way.
The most commercialized fish through Arte Xávega are horse mackerel, mackerel, sardines, anchovy, and squid, but occasionally show up rays, dogfish, sea bream.
Arte Xávega Controversy
Arte Xávega is legal and controlled fishing, however, one of the problems with this type of fishing is the lack of selectivity of fish caught. When the fishermen pull the net they do not know which fish is there, nor its size. They fish blindly, which sometimes leads to fish being caught below the size permitted by law. Much of the fish that cannot be traded is returned to the sea.
We also have to take into account that the quantity of fish caught by Arte Xávega is increasingly smaller, as there are fewer vessels and fishermen.
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