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Fishing in Dalmatia

After six generations, it may be about to end

James Hopkin | January/February 2012

One afternoon in early September, I was swimming in the warm, translucent waters of the Adriatic without any need of a mask or a snorkel. I swam with a large sea bass beneath me, and then, farther out, bigger groups. Suddenly, very close to me, a shoal of smaller fish leapt out of the water, first four then eight, 12, 16, until hundreds of them seemed to be flying above the surface, forming a ten-metre-long arc, like a piscine rainbow, their scales coloured sequins in the sun. The fish then dived back in, all at the same point, like a slowly disappearing tail. 

Magical visions are not uncommon in Dalmatia, such is the natural beauty of Croatia’s southernmost and most Mediterranean cluster of islands. Ever since the Greeks ventured up the Adriatic in the 4th century BC, founding the towns of Vis, Stari Grad, Hvar and Korcula, visitors have been entranced by the unblemished skies and sea-mist horizons, by the clear water turning turquoise in the reflected light of Aleppo pines, by the rocky hills and bays at sunset, and by the abundance of Mediterranean herbs, fruits and fresh fish. Indeed, those four towns became leaders in fishing and shipbuilding, and one of Europe’s earliest depictions of a sailing boat was found painted on a Greek ceramic in a cave on the island of Hvar.

When visiting one of Dalmatia’s archipelagos, you can be forgiven for thinking you have stepped back in time as you marvel at the ornate bell-towers, turrets and stone alleyways shaped by the occupying Venetians, Austrians, French. Or you may feel you have stepped out of time altogether: measured by gradations of sun and sea and sky, the days do not need dating. Antiquarian chimes sound like a spoon struck against a mess tin, then you hear the bells humming to a halt, followed by the creaking of the rope. Yet time has a way of intruding: Croatia is set for accession to the European Union in July 2013, and there is great concern among the islanders that their tranquillity—and worse, their livelihoods and their age-old fishing tradition—will be lost.

On Hvar, the Bibic family is legendary. I met the paterfamilias, Tonci Bibic, on the harbour, underneath the elegant stone arches close to the 14th-century Arsenal, where war galleys were once repaired. Like a fisherman from a fairy tale, he was portly, bearded, jocular, his deep voice a common feature among Dalmatian men. They say here, “Slavic heart, Mediterranean soul”, and Tonci’s words were enlivened by hand gestures and “Eh!”s, a response that can both answer or encourage the speaker. Setting up a collapsible table and chair, he positioned his old-fashioned scales and rusty weights, sat down with a coffee, and waited for the day’s catch to arrive. I asked him how long his family had been fishing. “Six generations,” he smiled. “Three hundred years.”

Tonci’s crew of nine (brothers, sons, cousins) go out at 4.30 each morning on three wooden boats of about six metres long, and return in the midday sun. I watched them come in, the small decks busy with nets, ropes, tarpaulins, rusty anchors. Two younger men leapt off and disappeared, while a scrawny old guy, his chest covered in sailor’s tattoos, stacked a dozen plastic crates of mainly white fish, the most expensive kind, such as dentex and sea bass. A huge, sweating bearded man then hauled a large plastic tub of salt water onto the dock in which they washed the fish, before parcelling out a certain amount for Tonci to sell. He told me his crew catch about 150kg each day in summer, and double that in the winter when it’s only the cheaper blue fish. “But in winter”, he explained, “there is sometimes half or full month when we can’t go out. Bad weather, too dangerous. Eh!”

Weighing each fish on the scales, he was doing good business at 60 kuna (£7) for half a kilo. Behind him, the old guy pushed the bristles of a broom-head through the salt water at everyone’s feet. At present, the Bibic clan is one of only three families on the island to hold a special licence for traditional fishing. I asked Tonci if EU regulations would force him to upgrade his boats. But such was his easy air—they say here, like a mantra, “pomalo!” (take it easy!)—that he did not seem the least bit  concerned.

“No need to modernise, to change,” he replied, smiling as he wrapped another handful of wet fish in a plastic bag, an eye showing through. “The EU will mean better marketing.”

His bravado is born of success. Indeed, the family’s enterprise is astonishing: his wife sells a portion of the catch each morning in the town’s fish market. His mother and daughters run an excellent seafood restaurant, Junior, just steps away from Tonci’s impromptu stall. Meanwhile, each morning, the mother of another branch of the Bibic family bounces across the water on a speedboat to Split to sell half the catch there. Even Tonci’s youngest son is on the crew this summer, but he doesn’t want him to become a professional fisherman. Having admitted that the catch was “not as good as last season’s’’, perhaps he’s thinking there won’t be enough fishing left for his son? He dismissed that too. “It varies from year to year, eh! I don’t want him to fish because the work is hard and dangerous. And in winter, on a rough sea, too dangerous.”

A very different view of the same reality can be found just metres away. At the other end of the harbour, right on the water, the Gariful fish restaurant is one of the best in Dalmatia. Each evening, when the sunset is turning mauve across the bay, and the little wooden boats jostle alongside exclusive yachts, the restaurant displays the day’s catch on three ice-beds: from red mullet to John Dory to a whole swordfish. Yet the owner, Ivan Gospodnetic, is worried. He told me that his crew of seven boats and ten fishermen brought in a staggering 50% lower catch this season than in previous years. “Others are catching fish out of season when it is forbidden to catch certain types of fish,” he added. “No one is taking care of that.”

Next day I smacked across the waves in a classic, wood-trimmed speedboat owned by Dario, a Croatian friend of mine. A former soldier, he is now the owner of one of Hvar’s most successful bars, the Bar Kiva, which he took on in 1994 during the Domovinski Rat, the Homelands war. Dario is a brilliant raconteur. Chewing on a stem of lavender, for which the island is famous, he told me about Napoleon’s time on Hvar and how the great general ordered the roof of St Marco’s church to be removed in the interests of hygiene as locals flocked to bury their plague-ridden dead. He told me, too, about the time when the Russians and the French were firing at each other across the bay, and about all the sunken galleons lying on the seabed. We were going to the island of Vis, its Mount Hum already visible like a slumbering mammoth in the mist. I had arranged to meet Professor Josko Bozanic of Split University and Ars Halieutica, “a multidisciplinary scientific programme” which seeks to preserve “the maritime cultural heritage of the Croatian Adriatic coast”.

The town of Komiza on Vis looks as if it’s been sculpted from sunlight and stone, and then tucked away beneath slopes covered in vines and fruit trees. In this fisherman’s enclave, there is a corner of café-bars the locals call “the living room”, over which lives the oldest woman on the island who sometimes peers out between green shutters only to retreat seconds later. It was in this “living room” that I met the professor, over half a litre of Karlovacko beer. We looked across the marina to the 16th-century Venetian tower, the Kastel, that houses the fishing museum. Professor Bozanic told me that there are currently about 100 fishing boats registered in the town, worked by families who have fished for centuries.

“But what will happen to these boats, to these families when we join the EU?” he said, with obvious concern. “Professional fisherman from Komiza have built small, economical boats of eight to 11 metres long, catching only high quality, big fish with their long lines of about 3,000 hooks. But they will not be able to fish more than six miles from Vis because EU regulations state that boats that size are not legal to go 100 miles away as they do now. Whereas the big fishing boats from the mainland and from Italy can do so. Other big companies will join them.”

I asked him about over-fishing. “There is a lower and lower fish stock in the Adriatic,” admits the professor, “but what is the reason?” Again he mentions Italian boats encroaching on Croatian waters, and also boats from mainland ports which pay €1,000 for a licence and then are difficult to track. “Fishing administration is centralised in [the capital] Zagreb. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Rural Development does not consult the science of fishing enough. Also, nobody knows exactly the quantity of catch because a great percentage of it is sold illegally to the Italian market.” Such illicit practices are possible because, given the length of Croatia’s coastline, it is hard to monitor the catch, equipment and vessels. The ministry is promising a “new strategic framework” that will comply with the Common Fisheries Policy, while benefiting from EU money and schemes.

The stars came out over the sea. The professor ordered two more glasses of Karlovacko. Although he is one of the originators of the gajeta falkusa project, a painstaking reconstruction of Komiza’s traditional one-masted fishing boat, the professor was keen to point out that his views are not based on nostalgia, but on sustainability. “These boats”, he said, gesturing to the harbour, “fish using traditional means. They do not trawl the seabed with huge nets like the bigger boats, and destroy the sea’s ecosystem and deplete the stock. So the EU should protect the smaller boats.” 

In Dalmatia, fish and wine are considered part of a well-balanced diet. Indeed, there is a Croatian saying: “A fish must swim three times: in the sea, in olive oil (while cooking), and in wine (in your stomach).” When I ate at Konoba Stoncica, beneath a roof of palm fronds, and overlooking a rare sandy beach—most bays in Dalmatia are rocky—I was treated to a platter of grilled red mullet, sea bass, John Dory and bream, not to mention Mediterranean vegetables cooked in olive oil, and a delicious mashed potato seasoned with herbs. Batting away a dozen fat wasps, I reached for a lemon slice. Pino, my guide and driver, stopped me. “No!” he exclaimed. “You use lemon only for stinky fish!”

At midday the following day, back on Hvar, I entered a huge bank-like vault filled with ice. Three enormous tuna, each weighing about 300kg, looked unreal lying there in this walk-in fridge. I was in the fish-processing centre owned by Josko Zuvela, a dynamic young entrepreneur. With an annual turnover of €10m, around 200 employees, and 40 big fishing boats, his family business has been thriving since 1992. We were in Luka Vira, an old port on the other side of the hill from Hvar town. Josko rolled over one of the tuna which here, unlike some places in the Mediterranean, are sustainably fished. He motioned how best to kill one, by cutting the artery under the left fin.

Outside the vault, on one side of the building, a woman was filleting and cleaning fish, all entrails and stinking juices. Huge, water-filled tubs were filled with living clams. On the other side, Josko’s father was stirring a large vat of grapes, from their own vineyards. Josko told me they export 95% of their fish, most of it to Italy. Why there? I asked, gagging a little at the olfactory clash of fish innards and sweet syrup. “They have already destroyed their side of the sea,” he said. “They will pressurise the EU. And if the EU doesn’t agree about our sea, the Italians will come with bigger boats, bigger engines, bigger nets.” So it seems he’s not a big fan of accession? “EU is bullshit,” he said. “Administration in Brussels is making money out of the EU. No one else. A few years ago, the EU offered me €600,000 for each boat to stop working. I said ‘No, thanks’. We have all the correct licences.”

We walked out to the bay under another hot sun; it was Croatia’s longest summer for a century. There were several boats 15 to 20 metres long in the harbour, green and white, with huge winches and rusty hulls, a couple of which Josko bought from Scotland and spent €1m fitting with radar and sonar. Suddenly, from these silent boats, men appeared, laughing, shouting, chatting across the bay. A seagull swooped and plucked a fish from the sea, and an old man sitting on the end of the dock fishing with a hook on a piece of string landed a big sea bass. “The Japanese come here to buy our fish for Tokyo,” added Josko, beaming.

Early every morning, the island’s restaurant owners phone. Usually the first is Tomislav Rudan, of the Giaxa restaurant in Hvar. “He asks, because he knows, ‘What is fresh?’ ” said Josko. “Whereas 70% of them don’t have a clue. They will ask, ‘What’s best quality?’ But the best quality fish is fresh fish!” And he gave me a slap on the back.

A little later, we jumped into one of his refrigerated vans with “Od mora do stola!” emblazoned on the side: “From the sea to the table!” We drove along steep winding roads with views of the Pakleni islands, the Hvar archipelago, lined up like stepping stones to Vis. Then we travelled down a long tunnel through the mountain and within minutes we arrived in Stari Grad on the island’s north coast, one of the oldest settlements in Europe. It was here that the 16th-century poet, Petar Hektorovic built his house, with its mullet-filled pond, and wrote his epic poem about a fishing trip with his friends, Paskoj and Nikola. 

Now the town’s harbour was crammed with wooden boats, the windows of their little cabins turning orange in the sun. I saw one old man paddle out to sea, on his knees, in a vessel half the length of a bath-tub, before laying out a small net. I watched a squid fisherman go out about an hour before sunset. Having tied the steering wheel with thin rope, he lowered the nets as the small-engined boat chugged its way round in a circle. And I found the workshop of an old carpenter, tools arranged meticulously on the walls, a giant vice in the centre. Happy to have a visitor, he led me into the next room. It was filled with models of Croatian sailing boats, including the gajeta falkusa, each made with extraordinary craftsmanship, then hand-painted. The models were a moving reminder that Stari Grad was once a thriving port.

These days, though, the town has little beyond a sardine factory and a fish farm, the latter a contentious topic. Though Professor Bozanic believes that fish farms “can save the fish stock in the Adriatic”, others are not so sure. Some feed their stock industrial food, which fattens them up, but makes the fish difficult to grill as their skin blisters easily. The best farms are those that use smaller fish for feed, though such places are harder to find. Charmed by the stillness of Stari Grad, I returned to Josko’s van. He wanted to talk about his restaurant, Marinero. “We buy in only coke and water,” he explained, proudly. “No cheese or meat, only our own fish and seafood. Everything on the plate comes from the island of Hvar.”

That night, I ate there: tuna steaks with a glass of local wine made from the island’s famous bugava grape. Only metres from the sea, the tables are arranged along a cobbled path that leads to St Marco’s. The scent of warm pine drifted through the old town. But that evening there was something else in the air, too: the rich harmonies of a traditional Dalmatian a capella choir came floating out of the church. The roof, you see, has never been replaced.

Later, as I was finishing my meal, I recalled Josko’s final words to me. “Remember!” he’d said. “The richest man in the 21st century is he who knows what to eat.” I raised my glass. I drank to that. I hoped the EU would agree. 

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