Flying on Fumes

By William J. Furney

I was sure I’d paid the most on this packed, 40-minute flight from one Canary island to another. Because judging from the chatter, my fellow passengers were local and I, a foreigner. They therefore enjoyed almost free flights (as low as €5 one way), due to a generous “disadvantaged” subsidy from the central government in Madrid that pays almost the full fare. I, meanwhile, had to fork out around €100 for the approximately 200-kilometre journey, a sum I’ve paid for the short flight many times in the last year. 

Two local airlines connect the seven main islands in this Macronesian archipelago off the west coast of North Africa: Canaryfly, which has just four ATR 72 propeller planes, and the much larger Binter Canarias, whose fleet comprises 24 ATR 72s and five Embraer jets serving routes to mainland Spain and elsewhere in Europe. Two seaplane firms are aiming to soon launch inter-island routes. I, for whatever reason, have so far only flown on Canaryfly, and some of their small craft are decidedly aged. 

On a recent return flight from Lanzarote to Gran Canaria, I found myself back on one of Canaryfly’s old planes, after a flight I took in August last year from Gran Canaria to Fuerteventura. It was recognisable from the two seats at the top right of the plane that faced backwards and directly to two forward-facing seats, which would be great for a family of four. And on this hot August mid-afternoon, the air-conditioning barely functioned; what came out of the overhead nozzles was barely a suggestion of a cooling blast of air. 

Some of the female contingent aboard instead relied on their handheld fans, while the rest of us sweated. I tried to catch a breeze from the woman in front of me furiously whipping her fan back and forth to get some relief. Outside, the turbofans were whirring up and before we knew it we were up and on our way. 

Fans, Inside and Out: On board a sweltering Canaryfly flight. (Photo: William J. Furney)

In the back sat an enormous man who I was sure was Isaac, a taxi driver who took me from the remote village of Charco del Palo, on the northeast coast of Lanzarote, to the airport last year. He suffered, he told me at the time, from obesity, and got regular medical treatment in Gran Canaria that was paid for by the government. As it happened, my driver this time was also obese, and similarly struggled to squeeze into the driver’s seat. What was happening to the good people of the Canary Islands, and had they forsaken the healthful Mediterranean diet beloved of their fellow citizens on the Spanish mainland and elsewhere around southern Europe? I wondered.

Here, as there, meat is in big demand — jamón (ham) most especially. And also an array of seafood, including pulpo a la gallega, an octopus-based tapa. And cheese — tons of it. Iris Sánchez, who coordinates protests in Gran Canaria for PACMA, a national party concerned with animal welfare, had asked me to take part in a third activist event against the development of an octopus farm by Spanish seafood multinational Nueva Pescanova, in the capital, Las Palmas, a week earlier. I told her I was on a writing break in Lanzarote, completing my memoir, but really I thought the event would be futile. 

Earlier in the year, we had staged a protest at government offices in Las Palmas, calling on officials to prevent what’s being billed as the world’s first octopus farm, in the city’s port. It was a Saturday and the offices were closed, but local media, TV and newspaper reporters, nonetheless turned out and documented the event. Another protest, a couple of months later, was held on a beach promenade in the city, on a lazy Sunday morning, and I gave a speech that roused the faithful while again urging the government to take action against the contentious development. 

Speaking Up: The writer, at a protest in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, against the planned development of the “world’s first octopus farm”. (Photo: PACMA)

But people sauntered past our protest and barely took notice — a Spanish woman stopped and demanded to know what it was about — while many of the restaurants along the seafront merrily served up tapas including octopus. This was where the third protest was planned, late on a Friday evening, and Iris said a German documentary crew would be filming, for a programme about the planned octopus farm. (Somewhat comically and a source of amusement between myself and a Danish activist friend, the protest tag line was, and remains, “Free Octopus”, possibly leading some passersby to assume we were giving away food.)

A different approach was needed, because most Spaniards love their carne y queso and seemingly cannot exist without it. I had earlier suggested to Iris and other activists that the location at the busy port — where many cruise ships dock, might be better, and attract more of the international, not local, media coverage we needed. At any rate, I took action by writing to Christos Economou, head of the Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries at the European Commission, asking if he was planning to do anything about what a growing body of scientists and conservationists were saying would be a cruel and barbaric enterprise in mass-farming octopuses, which are widely believed to be sentient and intelligent. 

“The commission is aware of the plans of Nueva Pescanova to build a farm in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria where it will breed, raise and slaughter octopuses. We already received a lot of questions about it from different stakeholders expressing views against as well as in favour of octopus farming,” came the reply.

And while Economou said “competence for the management of aquaculture” mostly lay with European Union member states, recommendations adopted by the commission in 2021 — in a document titled “Strategic guidelines for a more sustainable and competitive EU aquaculture for the period 2021 to 2030” — “cover certain general aspects that are relevant for the farming of aquatic species, including octopus farming, such as animal welfare, diversification to other species or environmental performance”. The guidelines are not, however, binding. 

They should be. Experts are now saying that meat and dairy — declining, cruel, environmentally destructive industries that are also injurious to human health — are almost certainly on the way out. And that in a decade or two, most meat products will be either plant-based or grown in a lab. The evidence is already there for all to see, as plant-based meat wins increasing shelf space in supermarkets. Cow-milk alternatives, such as soya, almond, hazelnut, oat, coconut and many others, have long since been available, and sales are booming. Demand is based on people’s increasing desire for ethical products that do no harm, to animal, human or the climate-change imperilled Earth, while sticking to a largely meat-and-dairy diet is being viewed not only as outdated and even archaic but also destructive and selfish.

“By 2030, demand for cow products will have fallen by 70%. Before we reach this point, the US cattle industry will be effectively bankrupt. By 2035, demand for cow products will have shrunk by 80% to 90%. Other livestock markets such as chicken, pig, and fish will follow a similar trajectory,” says a report by RethinkX, a think thank focusing on how technology impacts society.

It comes amid warnings like this, from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an agency of the United Nations, that would make any rational person rethink their meat consumption without delay: “After thoroughly reviewing the accumulated scientific literature, a Working Group of 22 experts from 10 countries … classified the consumption of red meat as probably carcinogenic to humans”. 

We are running on empty, flying on fumes.

  • Title photograph by William J. Furney.

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