RACHEL MARTIN, host:
So, if you've ever spent time in Europe, you know that striking is kind of almost part of the culture there, train conductors, health workers, teachers, bus drivers. Well, now, it's fishermen. Thousands of fishermen are on strike in Europe. It started in France a few weeks ago. Fishermen on France's Atlantic coast just refused to work, protesting the high price of the fuel they need for their boats.
Now that protest has spread to Portugal, Belgium, Italy, and to Europe's largest fish producer, Spain. Journalist Jerome Socolovsky is in Madrid, Spain, where thousands of fishermen are marching on the agricultural ministry today, and are expected to give away 20 tons of fresh fish. Hey, Jerome.
JEROME SOCOLOVSKY: Hey, Rachel. How are you?
MARTIN: I'm doing well. Thanks for joining us. So, what's the latest? Have you been able to ascertain how many fishermen have joined the strike in Spain?
SOCOLOVSKY: I don't know how many there are exactly. I spoke to the organizers before the protest. They said they expected around 6,000 fishermen there handing out, as you said, 20, slightly more than 20, tons of fish. So it's quite a scene there. It's in front of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries in the center of Madrid.
MARTIN: Wow! So, this is all about the high price of fuel. We definitely know about the high price of fuel in the U.S. It has affected Europe as well, but put that into context for us. Just how high is it?
SOCOLOVSKY: Well, yes, I mean, it does seem to be quite expensive in the States. Here, fuel is about double. At least we pay eight dollars a gallon here at the fuel pump, as ordinary motorists, and Spain is one of the cheapest countries for gasoline.
SOCOLOVSKY: Now, fishermen get subsidies, so that it's about half that price. They pay about 70 euro cents a liter, which translates to about four dollars a gallon.
MARTIN: But even with that subsidy, they're saying that this is - it's prohibitive. It's impacting their bottom line?
SOCOLOVSKY: Exactly. They say that in the past five years, gasoline prices, or their fuel prices, have gone up 230 percent. But in the last 20 years, the price of fish has remained pretty much stable.
MARTIN: And this is all because, of course, I mean, the boats require fuel, but it's also truck drivers as well to transport that fish. The cost of getting the fish from the seas to the fish markets and the market has gone up as well.
SOCOLOVSKY: Exactly. They're just seeing rising costs, and at the same time, at least they blame fish imports from overseas, for keeping the price of fish down. They can't really have much of a margin there.
MARTIN: Where - you say the imports are undercutting their own profits. Where is that coming from?
SOCOLOVSKY: Well, for example, I visited the local - my local fishmonger this morning and bought fish for the weekend. And he was saying that his - the sea bass that he sells, it costs about six dollars a pound here. And he says that's very cheap because it comes from Greece, whereas sea bass fished off the coast of Spain would cost twice that much.
MARTIN: And fish is a big deal, right? In Spain, in particular, it's a huge part of the diet. Have you been able to tell whether merchants and the consumers, they really are feeling this crunch already?
SOCOLOVSKY: Well, I don't know if they're feeling the crunch already, but they're certainly very worried about it. This fishmonger I spoke to says he has enough fish to last until Tuesday, and then after that he doesn't know what he's going to do. And perhaps it's wishful thinking, but he thinks that this is going to be resolved after today's demonstration because everybody will come to their senses and make some kind of deal. I'm not quite sure about that.
MARTIN: Let's talk about what those options could be. What are the striking fishermen - what are they calling for? What, realistically, can they expect the Spanish government, or the EU, for that matter, to do about the price of fuel?
SOCOLOVSKY: Well, they want more subsidies to bring the price down. I've seen proposals in France to bring it down to about forty euro cents, which is a little bit more than half of what it is now. I think the governments are limited, at least individual governments, are limited in to the extent to which they can give such subsidies and reduce the taxes on fuel.
The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has proposed reducing the value-added tax on fuel, and there are taxes which are quite a bit higher than in the States, which is what makes gasoline so expensive here. I have to say, I've lived in Europe most of the time for the past 20 years, and I've never heard a mainstream politician come up with a proposal like this, to actually reduce the taxes on fuel.
MARTIN: Mm. I mean, Jerome, this is a coordinated strike. I mean, there are fishermen striking from France, in England, Portugal, Spain. Is this an issue that is now been elevated to Brussels? Is the EU taking this up?
SOCOLOVSKY: Well, the EU is saying that they blame overfishing for the problem with prices, and they're going to have a finance ministers' meeting coming up, and they say they're not endorsing this idea of reducing taxes on fuel. However, they say it's really quite remarkable that you have associations of fishermen and other - and truckers in different countries coordinating their strikes.
As you said, you know, you're in Europe. There are strikes from time to time, probably much more often than in the States, but it's interesting to see how it really is being coordinated. In Madrid today, there's supposed to be representatives of fishermen's unions in other countries backing the protest here.
MARTIN: Well, as we said, if you've spent time in Europe, you know that people go on strike a lot. So, are residents in Madrid kind of just taking this as it comes, saying, oh, the fishermen, they're striking like everyone else, it'll be over soon? Or are people taking note as this being something exceptional?
SOCOLOVSKY: I - yes, I think it'll be interesting to see next week what happens when fish starts disappearing from supermarket shelves and in the fish markets.
SOCOLOVSKY: As you said before, it's a huge tradition here, really. Even every little town and almost every little village seems to have its own fishmongers selling a whole array of fresh fish. I don't know that many people really - I suppose a lot of people do buy their fish in the supermarket. But just to have fishmongers who are still in business in so many little towns really does show how big a deal it is here.
MARTIN: Well, stock up on that sea bass. Jerome Socolovsky in Madrid, Spain, Hey, Jerome, thanks so much. We appreciate it.
SOCOLOVSKY: You're welcome, Rachel.
MARTIN: Take care.
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