Touring Barcelona's seafood markets

Published on
October 23, 2012

Scottish visitors to the Barcelona Seafood Show last week benefited from guided tours of Mercobarna, the main fish market in Barcelona, of Boqueria, the emblematic general market on the Ramblas, the Capital’s main tourist thoroughfare, of Mercadona, the largest supermarket group in Spain, and Maresmar, a specialist seafood wholesaler.

The tours were organized by Scottish Development International in conjunction with UK Trade & Investment, and participants found them to be a useful addition to their itineraries.

Pablo Vilanova, development manager of Mercobarna, explained that the market supports 50 wholesale companies which import more than half of all fish on offer. Of that, 85 percent is fresh and the remainder frozen. 

Mercobarna is Spain’s second largest market selling seafood, with a category turnover of 176,000 tons worth EUR 1.06 million (USD 1.37 million). By far the largest market is Marcamadrid, which sells 193,800 tons of seafood per year with a value of EUR 1.28 million (USD 1.66 million).   

The markets have experienced a fall-off in business over the past couple of years, as Spanish consumption has dropped from 39 to 37 kilograms per person per year. Hake is the number one product traded, with monkfish, megrim and langoustines/prawns all highly popular products. According to Vilanova, Barcelona is the monkfish capital of the world with 100 tons consumed every week — more than in any other part of the world!  

Maresmar was traditionally an importer of luxury shellfish such as brown and velvet crab, langoustine, lobster and clams, and the ground floor of its premises is given over to live-storage facilities. It employs 80 people in Spain and a further 10 people at its Scottish arm, Marescot.

A couple of years ago, the company added cooked shellfish to its range and more recently employed the services of a Michelin-starred chef to develop a portfolio of luxury ready meals for retail sale. This addition to its business addresses the growing interest in ready meals, and already this year the company has noted a 20 percent increase in sales of these products.   

Overall in Spain in 2011 the ready meal sector grew by 6 percent to a total of 64 tons with a trend toward sophisticated dishes, individual formats, and extra-large formats in microwaveable dishes. 

At the Boqueria, fish is the most important commodity with 50 stalls selling fresh fish and shellfish. They are divided into two main areas, a “central” and a “cheap” area. Apart from one specialist tuna stall, every stand sells a mixture of fresh fish and live shellfish, and shoppers roam between them seeking out the best quality and price. There seemed to be few bargains!

“We have undertaken research that shows 80 percent of people buy their fish from a market rather than a retailer, and we get 45,000 people through this market every day and have an overall turnover of EUR 70 million (USD 90.65 million),” said manager Oscar Ubide.

Shoppers at Mercadona, which has a 17 percent market share, 1,357 stores around the country and a highly respected own-label brand, are comforted by familiarity.  Store director Paula Llop explained that every store is laid out in the same way and every fish counter features seafood in the same order. “Our customers are ultimately our bosses, and they tell us that this is what they want,” she said.

The fish counter features locally caught fish as well as imports, and whole fish feature heavily in the display. “There is a gradual move towards fillets but Spanish people still know how to prepare fresh seafood,” said Llop. Prices were extremely reasonable, leaving the Scottish contingent wondering how the supermarket can sell so cheaply. “My members won’t even land at that price, because they would be well out of pocket,” exclaimed David Anderson of the Aberdeen Fish Producers Organization.


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