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Island Ecology

Island Ecology

by José P Ribas

Let's Go Fishing!


Ibiza Ecology

There is one fish that becomes the real star for sport fishing off the Islands during the summer: "Xyrichthys novacula" - The Knife Fish, or "Raó" as it is known by the locals here.

It is a beautiful, small fish that would look elegant in an aquarium.

Pearly iris-yellow to salmon-pink in colour, sideways it is compressed, with a rather long body, big high-thin head, with the eye at the top and a very small mouth very separated below, with two sharp, knife-like, front teeth. ("Raó" means pocket knife in Ibicenco).

And they knife you very fast and painfully (if they can) every time you unhook them. It makes you think about the rose and the thorn.

This hermaphroditic fish (they turn males with age) of the "Labridae" family, lives in sandy and sunny seabed in the Atlantic from Florida to Brazil, South of Portugal and along the Moroccan coast, though, it doesn't seem to have any relevance at all here in the Occidental Mediterranean and along its South coast.

Once very abundant all around the Balearic Islands, as deep as forty or fifty metres at most, in this sandy seabed they lay the roe (from July until the middle August) and bury themselves whenever any danger is detected nearby, but even this is not enough to save them from the dolphins, ("Delphinus delphis" and "Tursiops truncatus" are the most common in these waters) that can localise and catch them under the sand by using a natural sense of acoustic vibrations, a natural and exclusive "sonar" installed in the dolphin's head.

During the hot summer months, when the seawater reaches the highest temperatures and its sexuality is ready for reproduction, this fish becomes very active.

It is when its fishing is done, normally, sportingly with a line and four very small hooks on it, using sea-worms; little shrimps or crabs as bait. In a good day, the catching could be three to four every time the line is thrown, or, let's says that it used to be so.

The recipe for its cooking is very simple: just take the little guts away and dip the entire fish in frying olive oil without scaling them. Its flesh is firm, without bones, lovely texture and taste.

It is amazing to see how a fish of this size, (25cm at most) hardly known out of the Balearics, can raise such enthusiasm amongst locals and visitors, sport fishermen and also anybody who eats them for the first time, for instance, one of our regular summer visitors, José Marí Anzak, one of the best and most popular Spanish chefs from the Basque country, where he runs his own restaurant "Anzak."

From the pages of several papers and magazines where he writes his opinions and successful weekly recipes, Anzak says that, "Raó" is "the best fish of the World", and confesses to the local journalist, that they are one of the reasons he and his family come to Ibiza for their summer holiday.

All this well-earned reputation has made this the most expensive of our fish, only to be found (if you or your friends don't fish it yourself) at top "IN" restaurants (twice the price of grouper, bass or prawns and very difficult to see at the fish-shop). They are the most prized gastronomic trophies.

The big increase in the number of boats and sport fishers (about 6,000 licences given in the Pitiuses) in recent years, plus the amount of summer visitors, and the illegal methods of fishing them, (because of their price) has decreased the quantity of "Raó" catches by more then seventy per cent. Its size is, in general, also much smaller than before.

To prevent its extinction, as almost happened this year in Mallorca, the local government declared this fish off-season, up till the third week in August. About two dozens boats were denounced by the Sea and Nature Brigade of the "Guardia Civil" for not respecting it. The fines are normally quite severe.

"Let's go "Raó" fishing"! That was what we could hear most in all the marinas of the Islands, as soon as the season officially opened.

The results of this extended off-season have been very positive, so say the experts. Most of the fish had already laid the eggs by then; the captures had doubled in size (especially in the first two weeks) in respect to the corresponding weeks in past years. Its size had also slowly recovered.

The government says that the experience will be repeated next summer, even prolonged another week or two for a better recuperation.

Most probably, one of the secrets of the "social" success of this fish, are the area and the time of the year that the fishing is done. The right time and the right place, especially by the best and most-crowded beaches and the waters in between Ibiza-Formentera where "Everybody" goes, in July-August (international film and musical stars, top-ten footballers, the president of the Spanish government, the Spanish Royal Family, etc.).

Plenty go to see and to be seen rather than fishing, some even buy the "Raons" from professionals, just to be able to show them when they come back.

Also because there is very little to fish, sports-wise, during the hottest time of the year.

In the same waters and the same time, there is another fish that also can be caught, the Triggerfish, "Balistes carolinensis" "Castanyola" for the locals (the same local name is used also in some parts for another fish "Brama brama").

This is an ugly, solid fish that can reach over two kilos, bream-like, very dark-brown-grey in colour, a mouth full of teeth, like a piranha, that chases the "Raó" like the Coyote chases the Road-Runner, (Beep-beep) but with a little bit more success.

This can be easily seen when you are on board fishing: they can be seen swimming around and crossing underneath the boat like torpedoes, sometimes what you can pull out of the water is half, or just the head of the raó that's left, other times you find the "Castanyola" in the hook.

They go so mad with it that you think they will jump on board by themselves, then you can catch them easily, by hand, with a small fishing-net by the side of the boat. It could be considered as a sub-product of the raó fishing.

Some people let them go back to sea alive, others just put them in the bag, with the "raons" on the top to show a fuller bag when they come ashore (the same old amateur tricks) and throw them back to the sea later.

You will never see the "Castanyola" in the fishmonger's either, nobody will buy it. It has a lot of waste and the skin, sandpaper-like, has to be all removed before cooking. If you want to do all this work, you will end up with two smallish, side fillets that can be fried, best in butter, "a la Romana".

I bet you one euro on this! If you put both dishes together, the "Raó" in one, and the "Castanyola" fillets in another, and you let anybody who doesn't know anything about what sort of fish they are (like the Pepsi-Cola test) forty five per cent, at least, will prefer the fillets.

The Good News

At last the rains! Over forty litres of rain per square metre fell on the Island during the first storm of the season. It was welcome like an old loving friend, and more than welcome for all the trees, forest and all the Island's Nature.

In fact, we could talk of "The Perfect Storm". It started late at night, after a hot, sunny day. It was a football night, "World Cup" night, so everybody was indoors, watching television. By the end of the different matches, it started raining heavily, and it kept raining for about two hours, the lightning was superb, non stop, all over, and, far enough away as not to be threatening.

The tourists were astonished with the wild beauty of the elements, the English were in real ecstasy, watching what they thought were their own fireworks for the football result, singing in the rain. Rain? What rain? "German tears!" they said. The Germans didn't seem to feel the difference. They already had a good wash anyway with their 1-5 drubbing on the night.

José P Ribas