Stricter catch quotas proposed to protect decreasing Atlantic fish populations have the fishing industry in Portugal irate as the restrictions would apply to sardines, virtually the national dish.
The most recent fishing stink arose in mid-July, when the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) called for slashing maximal catch quotas for sardine stocks off Spain and Portugal by a whopping 90 percent.
The ICES, which provides scientific advice on the marine ecosystem and issues opinions to governments and regulators that manage the North Atlantic Ocean, called for catch limits of 1,587 tonnes in 2016, down from the current combined quota of 19,095 tonnes for Portugal and Spain.
"It would be a death sentence," declared the president of the Portuguese association of net fishing organisations, Humberto Jorge, who is worried about the 5,000 people who live off of sardine fishing.
"I'm stunned, it's unacceptable. We are already banned from fishing between January and April, and each trawler can unload a maximum of two tonnes of sardines a day," he told AFP.
The country's secretary of state for the sea, Manuel Pinto de Abreu, expressed surprise at "this abnormal scenario."
"We are going to clarify this problem with the ICES because we know, better than anyone, about the state of the (sardine) stock," he said.
The Portuguese government generally takes into consideration the opinions of the scientific community but it does not necessarily follow their recommendations to the letter, José Luis Santos Silva, assistant secretary of state for the sea told AFP.
- 13 sardines per second -
Sardine fishing off the Iberian peninsula has been regulated since 2012 in a plan worked out by Portugal and Spain. It sets a maximal catch limit each year, with 70 percent of the total attributed to Portugal, and the remainder going to Spain.
The ICES has proposed a 2016 limit of 1,110 tonnes of sardines for Portugal and 477 tonnes for Spain. The sardine limit for the two countries in 2012 was 55,000 tonnes.
Alexandra Silva, a researcher at the Portuguese Sea and Atmosphere Institute (IPMA), acknowledges that the recommended 2016 quota is "very low," but says that "limiting catch (volumes) is the only solution" to prevent the exhaustion of regional sardine populations.
Reducing sardine limits is all the more difficult given Portugal's appetite for the fish.
According to IPMA estimates, the national consumption rate during the month of June represented 13 sardines eaten per second per person.
To satisfy that voracious demand, Portugal has turned to imports, and now nearly 70 percent of the sardines it consumes come from foreign suppliers -- notably Morocco.
Victims of over-fishing and unfavourable environmental factors, the population of sardines "has been greatly reduced in Iberian waters over the past 10 years, and their resources are at their lowest level in 37 years," said Silva.
That situation is bad news for the Portuguese, who in addition to having an outsized hankering for sardines are also Europe's largest consumers of all fish, with a per capita annual intake of 56 kilogrammes (123 pounds).