Our neighbour Spain’s beaches, from Gibraltar to the East, and that includes the most popular resorts, the Costa da Sol, Costa Blanca, Costa Dorada etc, all have beaches ‘washed’ by the Mediterranean. Portugal has the Atlantic, from North to South. There is an often repeated joke in Spain that when Portugal separated from Spain (around 1150), ‘we stole their sea view’. We also ‘stole’ the best beaches and the best ocean.

The Mediterranean is still one of the most polluted oceans on Earth

To quote the BBC Science magazine, “The Mediterranean Sea is completely enclosed, apart from the 14 km-wide Strait of Gibraltar and the 200m wide Suez Canal, so water cycles very slowly and pollutants tend to accumulate. One-third of the world’s shipping passes through the Mediterranean and between them, ships discharge between 100,000 and 150,000 tonnes of crude oil each year. Coastal discharges from industry and cities also result in high concentrations of mercury, cadmium, zinc, lead and untreated sewage. In 2007, a litre of Mediterranean seawater contained 10g of petrochemicals. Recently the Mediterranean has been cleaned up slightly and it is now ‘only’ the third most polluted, behind the Gulf of Mexico and the Baltic Sea”.

The Mediterranean is considered to be one of the world’s most polluted bodies of water due to waste disposal problems in many countries bordering the sea, as well as the intensity of marine activity in the region.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, “Mediterranean fish populations are in deep crisis. About 75 percent of fish stocks are still overfished in the Mediterranean, rising to 93 percent within EU waters, and total fish populations have fallen by more than a third over the past half-century. The cause of this ecological crisis: increased fleet capacity, illegal fishing, and catches of unwanted species”.

Now are you starting to appreciate the Atlantic?

Portugal’s beaches, especially in the Algarve, who have been awarded for the Best Beach Destination in the World, benefit from an ocean that is tidal and so washes the beaches twice a day. Sea swimming might be a little colder than the med, but the water is clean and healthy. Swim a little further out from the beach and you could well find yourself in the middle of a shoal of small fish, sometimes Mackerel or Herrings. They appreciate unpolluted sea water as much as you do.

A study published in the journal Science showed that some fish populations in the Atlantic have grown while others have shrunk in warming waters. According to any specialists, Portugal, eats more fish than any other country in Europe!! I always thought it was Spain, but it seems not.

Preserving our beloved Sardines

Preservation of fish stocks in Portuguese waters is very strict. The main institution responsible for fisheries management is the Directorate-General of Fisheries and Aquaculture (DGPA). We might not like it, (I don’t), when we can’t always eat our beloved sardines, but the strict regulation means that sardine stocks are increasing. Not long ago the government proposed a 15 year total ban on sardine fishing, but in fact by strictly enforcing quotas and authorised fishing periods, generally from May to the end of summer, stocks are recovering.

The observant sea fish lover may have noticed that recently the price of some varieties of fish in local restaurants has dropped quite substantially. Fish farming, aquaculture, is developing at quite some speed, especially in the Algarve. More than 80 aquaculture projects are underway, mainly in the Algarve, involving €102.8 million of investment. These farms are producing sole, turbot, sea bass, sea bream, trout, and shellfish, namely oysters, clams and mussels. Having tasted some of these I have to admit it’s quite hard to taste any difference to the open sea variety, and the much lower price is attractive. In the past, linguado especially, was an expensive choice, these days the farmed variety are substantially lower in price.

The Atlantic is the best for surfers

Portugal consistently comes up top for surfers, and the Atlantic produces some world record waves, but for everyday (almost) surfing, the west coast is especially favoured and equipped. According to the website Windy, one of the top sites for the windsurfing fans, “The Mediterranean Sea is definitely not the most popular place to surf since it requires specific wind conditions but there are still some waves to be found and surfed”.

They add the following comments on Portugal “Being one of the cheapest countries in Europe (oh and one of the most laid-back as well), it’s easy to find reasonable accommodation, hire a car with roof racks and check spots like Ericeira, Peniche and Sagres. Oh, did we mention that the seafood is absolutely delicious and the wine outrageously cheap?” That says it all.

So much to thank the Atlantic for

Apart from the sheer beauty of the Atlantic, there is so much to appreciate, and I suspect we rarely think about it. Clean beaches washed twice a day, great fish, unpolluted safe water to swim in, great for water sports, especially surfing. Great for divers and snorkelers. Plastic remains a problem, as it does in every ocean.

Let’s celebrate the Atlantic, it’s a bit of an ‘unsung hero’ and yet another asset for Portugal.


Resident in Portugal for 50 years, publishing and writing about Portugal since 1977. Privileged to have seen, firsthand, Portugal progress from a dictatorship (1974) into a stable democracy. 

Paul Luckman