Balfegó’s commitment to quality has enabled the company to export nearly 79% of its production.
Balfegó formula consists of rearing the fish in semi-captivity and feeding them only with oily fish. Photo by: Balfegó.
Author: Javier Mesa and Rodrigo García/©ICEX
It may seem unlikely, but it is still possible to make a living from such an over-exploited sea as the Mediterranean by respecting both tradition and environmentally friendly methods. The Balfegó family's red tuna farm on the Tarragona coast (in Catalonia) is one of the best examples of a commercially successful top quality sustainable product.
For five generations, members of the Balfegó family have been casting their nets in the same waters around L’Atmella de Mar (in Tarragona, Catalonia) in search of highly-prized red tuna. Fishing methods have changed over the years and the boats are no longer powered by sails, but the way in which the best fish are reared remains the same. The best flesh is that of wild tuna, which feeds naturally. If something works, why change it?
By remaining true to this motto, today’s generation of Balfegó fishermen has found a way of dealing with falling red tuna stocks in the Mediterranean, decimated by over-fishing and illegal practices, and have succeeded in obtaining a first-class product in demand all over the world. Their formula consists of rearing the fish in semi-captivity and feeding them only with oily fish (herring, mackerel and sardines), the same diet that they would be eating in the wild.
As Juan Moreno, the company’s managing director, says, "Balfegó's entire company philosophy revolves around red tuna sustainability". One of the key features of their method is the diet on which the tuna are fed during their growth phase in the pools owned by the company, located several miles off the Mediterranean coast in southern Catalonia: “The diet we feed them on, which is composed mainly of mackerel, sardines and herring, allows them to recover the fat they lose during the reproduction period. That way we provide the market with a product that's not only desirable and pleasant to eat for its flavor and texture, but also a vital part of our diet for its high protein, vitamin and omega-3 fatty acid content".
After rearing, the catch
The Balfegó fleet goes to sea between May and June to catch its assigned quota of red tuna; after waiting for the fish to spawn to safeguard the next generation, the catch is taken to a complex of large cages 2.5 miles off the coast at L’Ametlla de Mar. There, the fish are fed and they will stay until they reach the correct weight for selling at the market. Balfegó stress that fish are only sacrificed when a client places an order and sale is guaranteed.
Armed with the day’s order list, the Balfegó catamaran leaves port each day bound for the tuna cages. There, the next are cast and balloons inside the cages are inflated to group the tuna together. After separating them into groups, divers select the fish to be placed in the net, where they will be sacrificed and hoisted onto the refrigeration vessel.
In addition to its fish farming activity, the company is also heavily involved in innovation and traceability. Balfegó has combined fishing tradition and a hands-off approach to tuna farming with an innovative and rigorous traceability system that ensures a top quality, environmentally responsible product. As they are loaded on board the ship, a label is attached to the tail of each fish with a code enabling it to be traced right through to when it reaches the consumer. On arrival in port, the tuna are unloaded under the watchful eye of a Ministry of Agriculture inspector and placed in refrigerated trucks for the journey to the Balfegó plant, based in the same town. There, they are cut up, labeled, weighed and prepared for forwarding all over the world.
The fish also undergo quality and biological controls in the plant to check their condition and their pH level is measured to ascertain the quality of the flesh and decide which specimens are best suited to the purpose for which they will be sold.
The whole system is computerized, allowing shoppers to have real time access to all information on the tuna they have bought: date of the catch, weight, freshness, etc. The data are also available for the various institutions and authorities involved in protecting red tuna and supervising fishing grounds, quota and the like.
“We’re aware that when consumers buy a product they have the right to know where it came from, that it was produced legally, when it was sacrificed, how fresh it is, and all the stages in the process that matter to them" says the managing director of Balfegó.
On this topic, the Catalan company has gone one step further than the Spanish administration by having an observer from the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) on board its ships to measure and weigh its catches. That same official issues a certificate at the end of the process guaranteeing that the tuna coming out of the Balfegó plant is within the legal fishing quota and suitable for human consumption.
Balfegó’s commitment to investing in quality and innovation has enabled the company to reach an annual turnover of 25 million euros and to export nearly 79% of its production (Japan 47%, USA 22.6% and the remaining 9.4% to the EU), as well as supplying top restaurants with their highly prized fish.
Juan Moreno could not be more proud of the company’s links with gourmet cuisine: “Of course we have an excellent relationship with gourmet restaurants, as we can guarantee to supply them with something that’s vital to their businesses, a first-rate product at the same consistent quality all year round”.
Grupo Balfegó is a clear example of the value and potential of family businesses in Spain. Cousins Manel and Pere Vicens Balfegó are the fifth generation of the Balfegó family to work in the fishing industry. The company’s origins date back to when the town of L’Atmellá de Mar was founded in 1775, coinciding with the very first fishermen to settle here. More than two centuries later, Balfegó is a thriving, internationally renowned company, a European leader in red tuna farming and sales, and ahead of the game in the pursuit of sustainability and marine environmental responsibility.
Javier Mesa is journalist and contributes to several printed and online media. Rodrigo García is specialist food journalist and editorial coordinator of www.foodsfromspain.com.