500 year old Italian tuna festival cancelled due to lack of fish

Posted in June 2009

Fishermen in Sicily have had to cancel their five hundred year old Bluefin tuna festival because there aren’t any fish left to catch.

Bluefin is prized in Japan for sushi. Adults fish can weigh up to 600kg, reach over 4m in length and live for more than 30 years.

The fish’s plight has been highlighted in the new documentary End of the Line, released this week.

Until now every June fisherman in the small town of Favignana, in the Egadi isands, have used nets to trap the Bluefin as they pass through on their way back to the Atlantic from spawning grounds in the Meditteranean, before hauling them out using gaffes and brute strength.

Using a bloody but sustainable fishing technique, the ritual Mattanza (to kill,murder or massacre), focused on single schools, in which the biggest fish habitually swim first, which means the younger fish are left to grow.

Rockpaintings found in the area suggest this style of fishing stretches back to Phoenician times (1500BC)

But last year, when only Bluefin weighing as little as 50kg were caught local fisherman and head of the Mattanza Gioachino Cataldo called a halt to what he felt had essentially become fish infanticide.

In the last decade the price of Bluefin has soared as stocks have declined to the point where one fish can fetch up to to £80,000 in Japan’s fish markets.

Naturally this hefty price tag attracted the attention of organised criminals or ‘sharks’ as they are politely referred to in Favignana, something which only helped to hasten the Bluefins demise.

Benefit of hindsight

The locals blame the end of the Bluefin on the Japanese, who along with Korean and Tawainese trawlers over fished the area from the 1960s. Long line fishing and purse seine nets backed up by sonar and even helicopter spotters helped decimate Mediterranean Bluefin stocks.

And, later on when stocks ran low, Japanese boats sat just off the coast happy to take delivery of any remaining locally caught Bluefin.

The lure of soaring prices has been an attractive bait for legal and illegal fishermen alike. Italy exceeded it’s Bluefin catch quota by 100 boats and 700 tonnes of fish in 2008.

But as Favignana local Salvatore Marcantonio says hindsight is a wonderful thing: “It’s easy to say we shouldn’t have sold the fish to Japanese. We know now of course but back then that was the life. People fished and the Japanese wanted to buy the fish.”

Hopes pinned on tourism

Now the Bluefin has all but disappeared but economic pressures of island life remain.

Like many in Favignana Marcantonio and his son both work abroad, in their case as deep sea divers for oil companies.

Now the the hope is that toursim can be expanded to replace the gap left by the tuna industry. The island is already popular with Italians and Ryan Air started flying to Trapani last year (2008).

But as Marcantonio explains tourism alone may not be enough. “Like fishing the tourism season is also short – summer only lasts three months. The winters are harsh and there is little paid work. That’s why so many people like me go away to find work, there really is not other choice.”

History haunts harbour

Favignana’s commercial exploitation of Bluefin in the 1850’s when Italian industrialist Ignazio Florio – a Brunel like figure in Sicilan history - built the world’s first and for many years the largest tuna cannery in Favignana.

The factory declined after the second world war with the rise of intensive fishing methods such as long lines and purse seine nets. It was eventually closed in the early 1980’s.

The building has a left a huge and empty legacy in the heart of Favignana. It dominates the harbour, serving as a stark reminder of what happens when we over exploit the seas resources.

The size of several football pitches, the cannery has been restored with EU money and there is talk of it being turned into a sailing school. The America’s cup was held on the mainland in nearby Trapani in 2005.

Cecilla Biasibetti an officer at Favignana’s town hall said: “At this stage we don’t really know what is happening with the old factory. We have heard rumours about the sailing school idea but we hope that both the the council and the people of Favignana will be consulted.”

Like everywhere in Sicily though there is a fear that any new project will also attract the involvement of organised criminals.

“Once thing we don’t need is more ‘sharks’ coming from outside to exploit the people or the island,” Biasibetti said.

Hemingway meets Micky Rourke

For now all that remains are memories and the images of fishermen from yester year straining to haul the mighty Bluefin into their boats. What for so long was a way of life for people on this island has been reduced to ‘Hemingwayesque’ pictures on postcards, calendars and shop signs.

The fishermen were the bullfighters of Favignana – small town legends in their own right. I spotted one walking his dog down by the port in the evening sun. A greying blonde-haired hulk of a man whose friendly weatherbeaten faced features on the iconic Mattanza pictures and postcards sold around town. Looking at him you can’t help being reminded of Mickey Rourke in the Wrestler.

We exchange greetings and to be polite I asked him a question I already knew the answer to – was he really the man in the photo?

“Yes” he says, his eyes twinkling, “that is me, but that was a long time back now, ten years ago – when there were still fish.”

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