M.aurício Nogueira starts the engine of his small fishing boat and steers the “Soledade” from the port of Vila Real de Santo António out to sea. Three quarters of an hour later, the forty-three year old has reached his fishing grounds off the coast of the Ria Formosa in the east of the Algarve. He uses a winch to pull a rope out of the water and lift a dark object from the sea floor to the surface: an old clay jug filled with mussels and algae. The fisherman specializes in catching octopuses and uses a method that is thousands of years old: the Romans sank amphorae in the sea in the hope that octopods would use them as a home. Today there are still two hundred fishermen between Vila Real de Santo António and Faro who earn their living in this way.
“The method is much more sustainable than fishing with fish traps or trawls,” says Maurício Nogueira. There is practically no bycatch, and animals that are too small – in Portugal octopods can only be sold from a weight of seven hundred and fifty grams – are simply thrown back into the sea. Many of his colleagues have replaced the Alcatruz, as the clay amphora is called in Portuguese, with plastic containers. But that is out of the question for Maurício. “I don’t like plastic, and neither do the octopus,” he says. The material gets cold in the water, and the animals don’t feel comfortable there. In addition, the cylindrical plastic tube lies flat on the ground, so that mud and silt get into it – the octopus doesn’t like that either. “He loves it clean.” In any case, he can catch a lot more with clay traps than with the modern black plastic containers.
Especially off the coast of the Ria Formosa, the chances are good that octopuses will hit him or his pitcher. Because the lagoon landscape, which was created by a seaquake in 1755, offers ideal living conditions for the cephalopod. The strong tides ensure clean, oxygen-rich water. The shallow waters of the Ria, on the other hand, are the perfect place for the octopus’ shimmering black eggs, of which the female lays up to four hundred thousand pieces on small strings. And between the countless sandbanks, creeks and small islands, thousands upon thousands of crabs and lobsters live, the preferred meal of the octopods. In 1986 the sixteen thousand hectare area was declared a nature park. Some parts are used economically, for example for salt mining or mussel farming, others are entirely reserved for nature and still others for tourism – such as the section off Fuseta, where three exclusive houseboats anchor, or the mouth of the Rio Gilao into the Atlantic, where a former fishing village in the middle of salt basins has been converted into a stylish eco hotel. The kilometer-long beaches of the offshore islands near Faro, Culatra and Tavira, made of the finest, white sand, which slopes gently into the sea and are therefore ideal for children, are particularly popular with holidaymakers. Tavira can be reached via a small narrow-gauge railway that chugs over a mile-long dam. It used to be used to transport supplies for the tuna fishermen who lived on the island during the season. Today the former warehouses and barracks house restaurants, bars, shops and a fishing museum.