‘Madness of bodies in the death chamber’: Italian fishermen struggle to preserve an ancient tradition | Fish

‘Madness of bodies in the death chamber’: Italian fishermen struggle to preserve an ancient tradition |  Fish

HeyOn an overcast morning, several miles off the eastern coast of Sardinia, four men jump into a net as 49 giant Atlantic bluefin tuna fight for their lives. For 30 minutes, the men struggle in the frenzy of nets, tails, fins and polished silver bodies before they finally manage to secure a metal hook through the gills of the nearest fish.

From one of the seven wooden boats that frame this Chamber of the dead (“Chamber of Death”), Luigi Biggio shouts for his men to withdraw.

As 28 men looked on, a majestic creature about three meters long, weighing 120 kilograms (265 pounds), was pulled from the water using a reel. On the larger boat, a man quickly cut a vein and the vessel filled with blood.

Biggio, 57, runs A Tuna fishingthe Italian version of an ancient Mediterranean fishing custom, which involves catching and harvesting bluefin tuna in an intimate and harrowing struggle known in Italian as slaughter (“killing”). He comes from a long line of root (From the Arabic meaning chief), hunting leaders are almost sacred – a mantle passed from father to son in certain families.

  • Death comes quickly, in a manner that may be more humane, albeit bloody, than suffocation in the nets of fishing vessels. But men among them can end up in the hospital as a result of being struck by fish tails

The harvest is violent and can seem barbaric, as dying tuna are tied up, stabbed and hoisted onto boats. However, fisheries experts consider it a rare sustainable way to catch bluefin tuna, one of the most overfished species in the world.


DrDespite its advantages, Italy tuna Facing extinction. But it does not disappear due to the lack of fish. While the practice was threatened in the early 2000s due to the collapse of tuna populations due to commercial overfishing, EU regulations have helped tuna populations recover over the past decade.

“We are continuing a thousands-year-old tradition,” Biggio says. “We continue to do so with pride.”

But Italy’s small-scale traditional fishermen have largely failed to obtain permits under successive governments under a quota system, and now struggle to compete with the region’s large fleets.

While in the 1920s, more than 50 groups were hunting this way throughout Italy, Giuliano Greco and his family, who owned this method. Tuna fishing Managed by Biggio, it also owns half of the only other fishery still active.

  • In the “Death Chamber” A com.tonnaroto (Tuna fisherman) catches an exhausted tuna, ready to be hauled onto the boat

“(the Tuna fishing“) is the only environmentally friendly system for catching bluefin tuna because it does not touch or disturb the biorhythms and rhythms of the tuna stocks,” says Greco, who has been working with Sardinia carloforte tuna factory Since the early 1990s, he took over the management of the business from his father.

Unlike modern trawlers and trawlers that catch everything in their path,… Tuna fishing The nets are designed to catch only adult tuna, ensuring that the fish return the following season. It also employs dozens of people in the community.

With rapid harvesting, fish may suffer less compared to slow suffocation in fishing nets. However, even WWF – which is considered Tuna fishing As a sustainable – beware of making a spectacle of it.

A few boats maintain Italian tuna quotas. “They catch tuna with Italian quotas, and then sell them through Malta all over the world – except Italy,” says Fabio Micalizzi, a Sicilian who is campaigning for a fairer distribution of quotas.


aAtlantic bluefin tuna are among the most expensive and sought-after fish in the world, sometimes selling for millions of dollars in Asia. In the 1960s, as global demand increased, large-scale fishing methods such as purse seine fishing and longline fishing became widespread.

Purse trawling, the most common commercial method, involves dropping a cylindrical net around entire schools and locking it to the bottom. This results in the highest bycatch rate of unwanted fish and other seals.

As a result, bluefin tuna populations in the Mediterranean declined to critical levels by the early 2000s.

In an attempt to stop overfishing, the European Union implemented a large-scale recovery plan in 2009. It allocated fishing quotas to member states, set limits on the number of boats allowed to fish, and imposed a minimum weight of 30 kilograms of tuna caught.

It appears that the ambitious plan has paid off. Tuna populations have rebounded so successfully that since 2014, large boats have been “getting their annual quota of tuna in one day,” according to Alessandro Buzzi, of WWF’s Mediterranean Marine Initiative.

“Today many newspapers still declare that tuna is an endangered species,” he says. “Fortunately, tunas can’t read stupid things that humans write, otherwise they would get anxious.”

But the quotas that helped fish populations recover were “really disastrous” for artisanal fishermen, Greco says. The EU plan expects member states to distribute quotas among local communities. But in Italy these companies have become skewed towards larger companies.

“If I could, I would sue the Italian government for what they forced us to lose in recent years,” says Greco, noting that in 2023, Spain distributed 24% of its fishing quotas to its citizens. Tuna fishingknown there as The mudaraba, While the Italian government managed only 8%.


aAs a result of the quota distribution, it has become illegal for many small-scale fishermen in Italy to catch tuna. Even landing tuna as bycatch while fishing for other species can be punished by law. “Whether you want it or not, tuna jump into your boat,” says Micalizzi in Sicily. “If we professional hunters catch them, we become killers and thieves.”

In 2023, the Italian government redistributed a quota of 295 tons (about 1,200 adult tuna) out of a total of 5,282 tons to small operators. But Micalizzi says this amount is too small, especially since most of the Italian quota is allocated to a few trawlers and longships.

Meanwhile, in Sicily, there have been multiple reports of people suffering from scombroid poisoning as a result of eating poorly preserved tuna, which was likely caught without the correct permits.

“In these games, who loses?,” says Antonio Di Natale, a UN expert on sustainable fisheries and former research director at the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT).

As one of the oldest human industrial activities, according to Di Natale, Tuna fishing It should be protected as a UNESCO “intangible cultural heritage.” He adds that it is invaluable as a sustainable fishing practice because it is easy to control and highly selective.

Today, much of the wild tuna caught in Italy is slowly transported in large floating cages to Malta, Spain and Croatia. There they are fattened for up to six months to satisfy lucrative markets such as Japan, which values ​​large, fatty fish.

“There is nothing illegal about this practice,” says Posey. “But the impact of raising tuna in a cage cannot even compare to the environmental impact of catching wild tuna.”


THis year, before harvest, Greco’s team released a group of 1,200 juvenile tuna from their nets because they were too small. “What other hunting system allows this choice?” Asked. But running a Tuna fishing Not fast nor cheap.

While a big seine boat can go out with a small crew and catch the entire year’s quota in a week, preparing the boat Tuna fishing It takes about six months. The multi-chamber nets, 3 kilometers long (and 40 meters deep), take two months to prepare and two days to install at sea using 122 anchors.

Greco says he invests 1.5 million euros annually in… Tuna fishingIt employs about 50 people. However, to finance what is one of the last in Italy Tuna fishingHe reluctantly sells 75% of his trapped fish to large-scale tuna fishermen.

“I don’t like fattening them up,” Greco says. “It certainly doesn’t produce top-notch fish and it pollutes… I would have declared the cages illegal.”

But Greco is also optimistic. for him Tuna fishing It’s open to tourists who want to learn about this ancient practice – and it’s worth it to buy high-quality canned tuna for €25 apiece.

  • Fausto Sedi takes a break between net-hauling sessions as they wait for the tuna to swim shallow into the tonara trap. Renato Calabro, exhausted from a morning of work and a recent tuna fish slaughterHe was working in Tuna fishing For the past decade

At sea the harvest has ended, and one of the fishermen calls for silence. “Let thanks be given to the Eucharist. In the name of Saint Anthony, I release you. And the others answer: ‘Oh!'” Most of Biggio’s team returns to shore with their 49 giants, weighing a total of six tons.

But one boat remained behind. So, many exhausted fishermen sip local Ichnusa beer and enjoy the sunshine.

“In the last few years, tuna have become bigger and bigger,” says Stefano Sanna, A Tuna fishing Hunter for 25 years. “In this sense, the class was a success.”

This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center

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