For a long time, the fishermen of the estuary didn’t realise they were missing out on a gold mine! The waters of the Gironde were populated by sturgeon, known locally as “créa”, which were in abundance during the 19th century. But it was only the meat of the fish that was sold. The secrets of precious caviar, a Russian delicacy, were unbeknownst to the local population! Some attempts were made at the end of the 19th century, but with so little know-how, this local caviar was of a very poor quality. The sturgeon eggs were, as a result, mainly thrown back into the sea or fed to ducks!
Everything changed in the 1920s. Local legends have it that an elegant Russian woman walking by the port expressed her indignation at this waste and promised the fishermen she would do something about it. Admitting her identity as a Romanov princess, she is said to have left her umbrella at the port, which became a symbol.
In any case, in 1921, Emile Prunier, a renowned Paris chef, caught wind of the estuary’s famous sturgeons. As the Russian Revolution had stopped the importation of caviar, he decided to invest in French production and improve the quality to make a gourmet product. He taught local fishermen the secret to the real caviar. The industry made a name for Saint-Seurin-d'Uzet and the other small ports along the estuary until the 1960s. But the precious fish, affected by overfishing and changes in the aquatic environment, became increasingly rare. Since 1982, it has been listed as a protected species and its fishing is prohibited. Nowadays, mainly through fish farming, the species has been gradually reintroduced in the Gironde.
Another surprising fish can be found in the estuary. It’s the meagre, a species that is fished... by ear!
Interview of Sébastian Lys, fisher in Mortagne :
"This fish has a unique habit of growling underwater, it emits this sound to attract females. So, to find them, we just need to use our ears. We stop the boat motor, we listen, we hear them, and then we follow the sound. When we’re right over the fish, I can hear them like I’m hearing you now, and that’s when we cast out the net to catch them.
It’s a big fish. This year, the average ones would weigh in at least 15 kilos. Because the fish comes back to breed, that’s another interesting fact, as we fish them when they spawn, we breed them on board. When we have a female who is shedding her eggs, we put take her onto the boat, immediately we make her lay her eggs over our bucket, we collect all the eggs she wants to expel, we take the male's milt, we fertilise the eggs, we wait 5-6 minutes and we pour all this back in the water. A study was carried out not last year but the year before, and this fertilisation method was shown to be 80% effective. And we've been doing this artificial reproduction for about 30 years now, and we’ve seen an increasing number of fish in the last 30 years. There’s been a dramatic rise in the population.
Fishing in the estuary is a one man, one boat affair. We're equipped for small-scale fishing so we respect our resources. All our fishing is done in the estuary. We use a limited length of net, a limited number of hooks and we have limited our own numbers, and that’s why in Mortagne, all year round there are about ten of us and during meagre season, there are 18 or 19 boats. There are currently 34 fishing permits on the estuary and we won’t be adding any more.
The flesh of the meagre is less thin than the sea bass, it’s almost like cod. In my opinion, it’s by far one of the tastiest fish. I like to eat meagre grilled, preferably thickly cut and cooked a la plancha, and meagre carpaccio is a real treat, as well. We fillet the fish, cut it into thin slices, add a little bit of olive oil, a little bit of Espelette chilli pepper, salt and pepper, and some lemon juice just 10 minutes before serving, that's more than enough. It makes a delicious carpaccio. It’s an oily fish, even when simply eaten raw or cooked with lemon, it has a huge amount of flavour."