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A man poses leaning against a docked white fishing boat with red trim.

The Estrella del Sur III was the last fishing boat Félix Boquera worked on before his retirement.

Photo by Josi Miller

  • How the Retirement of Catalonia’s Fishermen Poses Challenges for the Future of Palamós

    We stood on a cliff in Castell, Catalonia, at the tranquil edge of the Mediterranean Sea. Six of us leaned against the railing, admiring the granite rocks, cork oak trees, and beach coves scattered with sunbathers. It was a clear, sunny day. Beneath the water, algae-covered stones turned the crystalline shallows bluish-green. Further out, the water churned a deeper blue.

    It had been three years since I conducted research on fishing culture here with Ramón and Félix Boquera—twin fishermen who represented Catalonia at the 2018 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. In this serene moment, I was reminded of why this part of coastal Spain remains my favorite place in the world.

    Ramón pointed at the water and announced, “There’s Félix’s boat!”

    A small inlet of the sea among high, rocky cliffs, with a few boats on the water.
    From a cliff overlooking Platja de Castell, Catalonia.
    Photo by Josi Miller

    I squinted. After a few moments, the rest of us shook our heads.

    “There’s no way that’s him.”

    “Look how far that boat is! How can you be so sure?”

    “I know my brother’s boat. I was with him at sea for twenty-five years. It’s him,” Ramón insisted, his hands now resting on his hips.

    How on earth was Ramón so certain that it was his brother when we could barely even see that it was a boat, let alone its colors?

    Aurora, Félix’s wife, pulled out her phone and looked at The Marine Tracking app. Sure enough, Ramón was right.

    Ramón shrugged his shoulders, “When you’re out in the water for that many years, you just know.”

    The Boquera brothers have a special connection, not only with the Mediterranean Sea but with each other. Over the span of forty years, they’ve earned their livelihoods by applying the traditional skills passed on from the generations before them. Whether trawling for giant red prawn, cooking seafood dishes, or navigating a boat, the accumulation of those experiences is what makes them fishermen, craftsmen, and cooks.

    Palamós is a small town situated along the northeastern coast of Catalonia, also referred to as the Costa Brava region. Its economy and cultural identity depend on its fishermen to catch their infamous red prawn and numerous other species. Palamós also relies on tourism—specifically culinary tourism—to revitalize uncommon marine species and provide fishermen a space to share their cooking and maritime knowledge with the world.

    After Ramón retired from fishing in 2009 due to a back injury, he worked full-time at​​ Espai del Peix until 2021. At this gastronomic institute, he led cooking workshops focused on fishermen cuisine, ​​medieval meals, and kid-friendly dishes. Visitors can learn about the region’s food history and enjoy healthy, affordable meals featuring species often overlooked by most home cooks and chefs. In contrast to the mass tourism in other parts of Catalonia, this small-scale cultural activity focuses on sustainability and the dissemination of local food cultures.

    In 2018, Ramón and Félix spent six months at Espai del Peix, until Félix returned to fishing gambas (shrimp) on Estrella del Sur III. For the next five years, Felix was the boat’s mechanic until his official retirement in November 2022. He expressed mixed feelings of optimism and unease. In the next three years, several other fishermen will retire, sparking concern for the town’s future economic and cultural growth. In addition to a high number of retirees, none of their children wanted to become fishermen. They’re studying and working outside of Palamós. Without anyone training to replace the current fishermen, Palamós could potentially lose their traditions and economic stability.

    Despite this, Félix is embracing the chapter ahead. He and Ramón dedicated their entire lives to the Mediterranean Sea and culinary tourism, but now they’re pursuing new projects related to food, plants, and holistic health.

    Interior of a home painted white and deep blue, with several potted plants and sculptures of marine life.
    A fisherman’s house in Palamós, Catalonia.
    Photo by Josi Miller

    The Palamós Fishing World: Past, Present & Future

    As we sat on Ramón’s terrace, Félix looked out at the mountains and reflected, “When I turned fifty, I thought I could last another ten years as a fisherman. Now, at age fifty-six, my body is exhausted.

    “Because of how labor-intensive our job is, every three days of work is equivalent to four days,” he continued. “So if you work as a fisherman for ten years, the Spanish government takes two years off Spain’s official retirement age of sixty-five. I worked forty years as a fisherman, so I can retire at age fifty-six.”

    Their uncle taught them how to fish as soon as they could hold fishing poles. “Becoming a fisherman made the most sense because that’s what my family did,” Félix explained. “By the time we turned sixteen, we became fishermen full-time.”

    Ramón joined us outside. He told me, “It wasn’t easy, but there were some days that were really special. Being on the water and with nature was one of the most rewarding aspects of the job. Every day was different.”

    Félix nodded his head eagerly while showing me a video on his phone. “The other day, we had several dolphins swimming next to us for two hours. It was incredible! The feeling of being free, seeing the sunrise every day, and having the entire sea to explore is gratifying. That’s what I love most about my work.”

    “Another fascinating part about our job is discovering where species live, where they migrate to, the best areas to fish from—just how nature works,” Ramón added.

    Still, this profession comes with challenges. The twins outlined reasons why younger generations most likely don’t want to become fishermen.

    “It’s not a comfortable job,” Félix said. “You wake up at 5 a.m. and come back at 5 p.m. Plus, if the weather is bad, there’s no escape. You have to deal with it. You could sway back and forth for hours and not catch much seafood. You also don’t know how much money you’ll earn. Your salary depends on what you catch. There is no hourly pay.” He sighed.

    “This is an issue happening all along the Costa Brava, not just here,” Ramón reminded.

    From behind, two men set a trawling net at the stern of a boat
    Félix Boquera and his crew trawl for gambas.
    Photo courtesy of Félix Boquera
    Three men kneel of the deck of a boat, sorting through plastic trays full of red prawns.
    Fishermen sort through the gambas.
    Photo by Félix Boquera

    According to Félix, the disappearance of fishermen in Palamós would be catastrophic for their culture and economy. Gencat’s 2021 sales summary states that the fishermen in Palamós caught 1,500 tonnes of fish, worth 9.5 million euros.

    The Fishermen Association of Palamós is actively searching for a solution to retain their small-scale fishing practices. “This has always been a profession passed down from father to son, but we have to find another way,” Ramón expressed. The association recently began offering the official nautical courses so that those interested in the profession don’t have to travel to Tarragona, two and a half hours away. These courses teach students how to operate a boat, tie knots, catch fish, and keep the crew safe. Students are tested to see if they can survive on the boat for twelve hours in all weather conditions.

    The local fishing community is also considering recruiting people from other countries. “Right now, there are a few fishermen from Morocco who work at night fishing sardines, but we need people who will catch gambas,” Félix said as he slowly exhaled.

    “In three years, 40 percent of the fishermen in Palamós will be retired,” Félix continued. “Right now there are 127 fishermen who fish gamba, 45 who fish for sardines, and the other 25 who fish on smaller, low-powered boats closer to the shore.”

    “Fifteen years ago, we had 400 fishermen,” Ramón lamented. “In three years, there will be less than 100.”

    Between 1982 and 2009, Félix and Ramón were part of the same fishing crew. They have experienced the evolution of technological advances such as radar, sonar, and new types of fishing nets. It’s made locating and catching fish much easier and a lot safer. Previously, eight to ten people worked on a boat, whereas today there are only three to four. When fishing became more efficient in the 1970s, wealthy people from other areas would buy fishing boats and hire local fishermen to fish on their behalf, solely for profit. By about ten years later, the newcomers had overfished many marine species. When the boat owners realized there wasn’t any more opportunity for profit, they left Palamós.

    By the mid-1980s, with barely any species left to catch, the local fishermen realized they needed to implement sustainable fishing practices to revive the natural cycle of marine species. With the help of marine biologists, they designed a fishing management system. This plan maps out specific areas and times they can fish and requires the use of certain nets to minimize damage to the sea. Furthermore, they take two and a half months off from fishing each year to repair their boats and allow for the prawns to reproduce.

    A plate of cooked red prawns.
    Sauteed gambas de Palamós
    Photo by Josi Miller
    A large, circular metal pan full of a brown rice stew and an arrangement of red prawns.
    Rice and gambas de Palamós cooked by Ramón and Félix Boquera
    Photo by Josi Miller

    Ramón and Félix spent decades trawling the sea for their town’s most iconic symbol: the gamba de Palamós. This giant, juicy red prawn is embedded in their town’s culture and identity. They appoint a gamba de Palamós ambassador, organize food festivals, and design cooking workshops to demonstrate how the prawn is caught and cooked. In 2021, the fishermen of Palamós caught seventy-three tons of gamba—the most in the entire world. In second place was another Catalonian town, Blanes, with fifty-four tons.

    The gamba de Palamós draws in bounteous tourists and famous chefs, but so do the idyllic beaches, mountains, cultural activities, and cuisine, making this town extremely popular during the summer months. Because a majority of their tourism is spurred by fishermen and food, their disappearance would impact spaces such as the Fish Museum, the markets, Espai del Peix, and food festivals.

    Insights from the Children of Fishermen

    Félix’s son Adrià, age twenty-three, decided long ago that he wanted a different life than his father’s. He currently works full-time at a luxury hotel in Catalonia as a receptionist and waiter and hopes to work in other countries, combining his passions for tourism, travel, the water, and navigation.

    Adrià and I sat in my apartment eating tortilla de patatas (potato omelet) as he described his childhood memories with his father. “I loved being out on the water with my dad. I’ve done it about six or seven times, and every time I went on the boat, my father’s crew caught huge amounts of gamba. They thought I was their good-luck charm and wanted me on the boat all the time. It really is amazing to see the sunrise, watch everyone throw the nets out, and see what they catch. I know that my perspective is limited though. I can’t imagine doing that every day.”

    A man and a boy, both in yellow waders, sit together on the edge of a boat at sea.
    Adrià Boquera shadows his dad at work.
    Photo courtesy of Félix Boquera

    I asked him if he had ever considered becoming a fisherman. “At one point I was interested, but not for too long. My dad was very transparent with me about how hard and dangerous the work can be. Many men lose fingers or wind up with knee problems. You also don’t know if you’ll earn much. Dad always gave me the choice of what I wanted to do with my life, and I decided to pursue tourism and hospitality.” Despite Adrià’s decision, his interest in tourism and water stem from his family’s involvement with fishing and traveling.

    Though very few men are training to become fishermen, a young woman from Palamós, Mar Figueras, recently completed training to become captain of her father’s boat. During a virtual interview with the Marine Stewardship Council, she claimed, “Ever since I was little, I really loved the sea and fishing. It’s what my family has always done. They consider the sea as part of their life. Since I was a little girl, I’ve been learning little things about the sea, like how to tie ropes and anything related to fishing.”

    However, after she completed training last year, she opted to finish her degree at University of Girona instead. She studies food safety and quality for marine species. She doesn’t plan to return to the fishing sector, but if she decides to change her mind she would be the only fisherwoman in Palamós. Perhaps her optimism and dedication to fish and the sea will inspire other young women to enter a predominantly male workforce and motivate others to continue learning about family traditions.

    Life after the Sea

    When I asked Félix if there was anything he missed about the job, he replied, “The sea.”

    Even though he resides five minutes from the water, when he says he misses the sea, it’s the parts of the water untouched by tourists, a place he felt liberated. Every day for the past forty years, he woke up at 5 a.m., and, called by the sounds of the waves through his window, traveled miles away from home to catch gamba. Now that he’s no longer on the boat, he is collecting new skills.

    In the last year, Félix and Ramón have dedicated their time to collecting useful plants and studying their medicinal and culinary uses. After they attended an ethnobotany workshop last year, they were hooked. They’re now members of an ethnobotany group and spend their weekends learning how to cook with plants typically forgotten and unused.

    Similar to their marine species revitalization projects at Espai del Peix, Félix and Ramón aim to create more visibility for the plants and herbs that can be used in the kitchen—not just for flavor but also for health benefits. Additionally, their group highlights medicinal herbs that can enhance balms and lotions.

    Two men, arm in arm, each hold up jars of jam, smiling.
    Félix and Ramón Boquera show off their homemade jam collection.
    Photo by Josi Miller

    The twins have shifted their focus from water to land, and eventually may start a small business selling some of their jams, beverages, and lotions. Their homes are stacked with jars containing herbs that can ease sore throats and headaches. Félix also makes balms to soothe burns and mosquito bites. They have dozens of smaller glass jars filled with jams, sea salt, ratafía (a Catalan liqueur), kombucha, elderberry juice, and honey.

    As Ramón showed me his herb collection, he stated, “Everything we’ve foraged enhances our cooking, and we’re diversifying our palettes. As a fisherman, you’re also a cook. My experiences cooking on the boat, in a restaurant, at the gastronomic space, and at home are all improving thanks to my ethnobotany studies.”

    “In the past, people had more of a tolerance for bitter flavors, but now people are accustomed to sweet foods,” Félix commented. “I’ve learned all of this from our foraging collective and discovering which plants have health benefits and how to use them in the kitchen.”

    A month into his retirement, Félix had told me, “I’m a lot less stressed. I wake up early to go on long walks. Before, I had to be extremely careful with my body so that I wouldn’t wear it down or get injured, but now I’m looking forward to coaching soccer.”

    Even with new hobbies and goals, Ramón and Félix will always, inherently, be fishermen. That day on the cliff showed me that while Ramón hasn’t been fishing in fourteen years, he is undoubtedly connected to maritime life.

    When the three of us sat around the kitchen table, they said to me, “We can’t fully retire. We want to continue cooking Mediterranean and fishermen cuisine. We’ll continue to lead workshops related to tying knots, making nets, and doing everything we can to help preserve our cultural heritage. It’s part of who we are.”

    On my last day in Palamós, Félix texted me just after 5 p.m., inviting me to the dock to meet his crew. When I approached Estrella del Sur III, a dozen tourists clustered around the boat, fascinated by the fishermen’s catch of the day. We huddled around as they hosed down the deck, sorted the fish, carried the crates over to the fish auction, and refilled the gas tank.

    When Félix noticed me, he grinned and motioned for me to jump on board.

    Once I stepped onto the boat, the other fishermen shook my hand and smiled. “Tu eres parte de la tripulación!” they said. “You’re part of the crew now!”

    Once they finished cleaning the boat, we took a short boat ride to the other side of the port. As we pulled out, each one of the fishermen rested their elbows against the railing and gazed out at the coastline. After being at sea all day, they were ready to be back home.

    Five men posing arm in arm on a boat.
    The Estrella del Sur III crew from left to right: Miquel Maspons, Toni Albalat, Josep Maria Gisbert (who replaced Félix after he retired), Félix Boquera, and Xavi Miró.
    Photo by Josi Miller

    I dedicate this article to the Boquera family. Thank you for being my home away from home.

    Josi Miller is a former intern at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and a graduate from Denison University, where she majored in sociology/anthropology and Spanish. She resides in Charleston, South Carolina, and continues exploring food cultures with her friends and family.

    All interviews were conducted in Spanish and translated to English.

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