Showcooking at Tunateca restaurant. Image from the restaurant website.

Balfegó: over a century with bluefin tuna

With constant innovation and a unique system of traceability and transparency throughout, Balfegó has become a benchmark with a turnover of €50 million. Their latest enterprise has been the opening of the Tunateca gastronomic space in central Barcelona. "This is the first place in the world dedicated exclusively to bluefin tuna, a new concept that brings together tasting, culture and information on the species," they explain.
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or over 30,000 years now, people have been fishing bluefin tuna, which comes into the Mediterranean through the Strait of Gibraltar in spring, fleeing its worst enemy: the orca. Over 30,000 years, tuna fishing and consumption have spread, and today the bluefin (Thunnus thynnus) has become a highly prized fish, though not bereft of controversy.

In response to the danger of extinction of the species, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) and the European Commission took action on the issue with a series of measures between 2006 and 2008, including the reduction o the catch and the closure of fisheries located in the Eastern Atlantic and in the Mediterranean. There has been no lack of controversy, but the Balfegó Group, currently under the management of the fifth-generation of a fishing family has been able to adapt very well to current regulations and legal restrictions, and has become the leading company in Spain in catch, livestock maintenance and marketing of bluefin tuna. This has been done by combining their fishing activity with fish-farming, becoming industry leaders and gaining a good reputation and greater territorial presence, focusing only on brand image in an industry, that of fisheries, which is rather traditional and closed. Hats off to them!

With an approximate annual turnover of about €50 million, cousins Manel Balfegó and Pere Vicent Balfegó and their wives have turned from traditional fishing of the species to become a reference model for its management, which if it continues in this way may well be a case-study at business schools in future.

“In a single campaign, our aquaculture facilities can accommodate between 11,000 and 12,000 tuna,” they explain at the company.

FISHING AND FEEDING PROCESS

With a fleet of two seining and two longline fishing boats—plus two boats for work at the facilities—the Balfegó Group engages in bluefin tuna fishing in the Mediterranean for a month, starting at the end of May, although they usually meet the assigned fishing quota in less than a week. The resulting catch is transferred to fish pools at their aquaculture facilities where the tuna are fed oily fish exclusively until they can be sold. Once there is a buyer and the order is made—and only then—the tuna is slaughtered applying the humane ike-jime procedure. With this procedure, the tuna maintains an optimum level of fatty tissue and ensures the product is as fresh as possible so it can be sold throughout the year and throughout the world. “In a single campaign, our aquaculture facilities can accommodate between 11,000 and 12,000 tuna” the company explains.

They currently focus on markets in Japan (32% of total sales); Spain, with 27% of sales; the United States, with 24%; and to a lesser extent the United Kingdom (6%), Germany (2%) and Italy (2%).

These pools full of tuna are located at 2½ nautical miles—about 5 kilometres—off the coast of l’Ametlla de Mar (La Cala to its people, in the Baix Ebre region of southern Catalonia) which saw the birth and growth of the Balfegó family business. The bond they have with the region is very important to them, which is why their facilities are located there.

However, on June 22, the 4,500 sq metre bluefin processing plant in the town, with around 200 direct employees and another 200 engaged indirectly, burned down. The very next day, they carried on  working, with 90% of the orders fulfilled within three days of the fire, and the group is now conditioning another warehouse. “However, the final objective we are working on is to rebuild the plant that was burned down, and we expect that to be ready in about 18 months,” a Group spokesman explains.

BEYOND TRADING

But the Balfegó Group is not just dedicated to fishing, farming and marketing bluefin tuna. They have created an entire experience around the species. Thus, they take full advantage of all the resources available and get the most out of them. A clear example is the Tuna Tour. The experience, initiated in 2012, takes passengers on board a catamaran which can accommodate up to 69 people to the Group’s aquaculture facilities where the tuna are maintained. In one of the pools, 50 meters in diameter and 35 meters deep, you can see about 400 individuals, on average 2½ meters long and 250 kg in weight. The most daring visitors can even swim with the tuna which, who knows, they may eat some day. The Group expects there will be up to 20,000 visitors on the Tuna Tour in 2018.

Additionally, Balfegó have fostered the propagation of education on Thunnus thynnus in different fields. A well-thought-out brand strategy that has of course been fruitful.

Their latest enterprise has been the opening of the Tunateca gastronomic space in central Barcelona. “This is the first space in the world dedicated exclusively to bluefin tuna, a new concept that brings together tasting, culture and information on the species”

Since the beginnings of this new phase captained by the Balfegó cousins, basic books and guides on  Mediterranean bluefin have been published, some together with the Alícia Foundation for healthy food research.

Other marketing strategies they have carried out have been to foster workshops and cooking courses in alliance with top chefs such as Martín Berasategui (8 Michelin stars), with whom they made the short film Mar de somnis, una vida entre tonyines roges—Sea of Dreams: a life with bluefin tuna—and which serves as their ambassador.

But it does not end there: their latest enterprise has been the opening of the Tunateca gastronomic space in central Barcelona. “This is the first place in the world dedicated exclusively to bluefin tuna, a new concept that brings together tasting, culture and information on the species,” they explain.

Bluefin tuna from U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Future plans and innovation mark this company that has become an industry leader, which besides being sustainable, has a unique traceability system that electronically manages catch documentation during the entire fishing, transfer, farming, processing and marketing operation. A transparency process that even includes international observers on the ships when they go fishing. It is a clear example, then, of how to innovate and transform the traditional fishery industry, which is extremely important in our country.