Sniff out a bargain, say mobile mongers

Illegal catches of fish added to the long list of goods sold by street vendors

Sunglasses, pirated CDs and DVDs, watches, handbags. And now, fish. Street vending is no longer limited to imitations of brand-name accessories or copies of hit movies. Anchovies and sardines have joined the range of products that can be purchased illegally on the street.

Shopkeepers in the Catalan coastal towns of El Vendrell and Calafell complain that this sort of street vending is frequent, and getting more so. The vendors favor bicycles, and work much the same areas as the familiar top mantas (street vendors who display their wares on sheets). The origin of the fish they sell is unknown, nor has it been through any hygienic inspection.

Bucket of anchovies

On the beach of Coma-ruga in El Vendrell, you can buy fish from first thing in the morning till midday. At 9am a young man of Moroccan origin sits near the beach railing, displaying fish. At about 11am another, middle-aged Latin American man appears murmuring: "Fresh anchovies at 5 euros a kilo." He is on a bicycle, moving along the waterfront avenue, carrying a paint bucket that smells strongly of fish. The sun is heating up and the vendor is sweaty. Soon some people stop him and ask to see the goods. Warily he dismounts and looks around him, sees no police and opens the plastic bucket, full to overflowing of anchovies and blood-tinted water.

"Look at the eyes; they're fresh for sure. Give me a kilo. This is best thing around. Why should I go to the market to buy, if these are good, fresh and cheap?" says a local man, who prefers not to give his name, and buys such fish often. "I caught them last night in my boat, off Tarragona," says the vendor. He produces a small portable scale, weighs them quickly with no gloves or other sanitary measures, and puts them in a plastic bag. Then he moves away on the bicycle.

But it is not only individuals who are availing themselves of these fishy bargains. Bars and restaurants are also targeted by the mobile fishmongers. One restaurant manager explains that he gets several offers a day. "I don't buy from them, because you don't know what state the fish is in. They mostly go on bicycle, but now they even use carts. They sell anything — whatever comes to hand."

Owners of licensed market stalls suffer most from the practice. So, to some extent, do local fishermen, for many of the vendors have actually gone out and caught the fish they sell. However, others are men who unload fishing boats in the morning, and the fishermen may prefer to pay them in kind rather than cash. Most vendors are immigrants, and the xenophobic political party Plataforma per Catalunya is making a campaign issue of the situation in the lead-up to the May 22 local elections.

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