The Camogli’s “Tonnarella”

Tuna fishing is a piece of food culture still resisting in northern Italy, afeguarded and accepted in one of the most famous marine protected areas in the world: the Portofino one.

It is an ancient art, lost in a limbo of confusion and horror, abused by words such as over fishing, exploitation of resources, and destruction of the seabed.

No, it wasn’t always like that, and in this last stronghold of awareness, for hundreds of years, a fishing cooperative keeps alive the hope that humans and the sea can continue to co-exist, without one sinking each other.

We live our “ecological” past as an ominous moment to forget, an era to remedy, but doing so, we have suppressed the memory of those who, with the experience of aching hands and faces corroded by sun and salt, found a
compromise with the big blue.

While the open sea fishing has become more and more destructive, and bottom trawls seriously damage the deep seabed, in the activities taking place around the “Tonnarella” remain all the charm of the old fisherman’s craft, deep connoisseur of the sea and its resources.

Today, like centuries ago, the nets are lowered each year, from April to late September, at the same spot of the coast, enclosed between Camogli and Punta Chiappa (GE).

Still handmade woven by tuna fishermen, the released when lifting the “tonnarotti”, using twisted coconut fibers, once the nets are dropped underwater are quickly colonized by marine organisms, thus making them difficult to detect by migratory fishes.

The correct positioning of the nets system is the result of archaic observational strategies about tuna habits.

The fish comes in during springtime through the Gibraltar Strait, follows the temperate surface currents, essential for its reproduction, and then returns from where it came in fall.

It is said that, carrying out this migration towards the Ligurian Sea, the tunas keep always the land to their left side, as if watching with a single eye.

Always following the coast with the left eye, the tuna is deceived by the barrage created by the “foot” (the piece of net anchored to the ground, placed transversely to its path) and follows it up to finish its journey inside the Tonnarella.

Entering the grand room of the trap, the fish is disoriented and, unable to find a path to its left can only enter into the various rooms, until arriving
to the death room, where there’s no way out and where its fate is marked.

It is selective fishing, not destructive.
Tuna is becoming increasingly rare.

The nets also capture smaller fish species, such as kingfish, bonito, swordfish, jackfish, mackerel and sea bream, but very often in the passage
chambers, together with fish of small size not yet mature for selling, also sneak-in species commercially not interesting, such as sunfishes, mobulas and many others, which are then released when lifting the nets.

For the first time in living memory, but above all for the first time documented and photographed, two dolphins, driven by curiosity or
perhaps attracted by the fish, have entered the net. Although they had the consciousness of being in a restricted environment, they did not seem frightened by the situation.

To the contrary, they showed curiosity towards me, maybe because we were playing on equal terms: both mammals, both needing air to remain under water, both closed in the net. Vocalizations were frequent, perhaps to locate
the net that in some parts, especially in the backlight, became almost invisible.

They tried to interact for fifty minutes, attracted by the light of my flashes, or perhaps comforted by a strange cooperation relationship, or maybe to become a pack. I had their eyes on mine always. It is difficult to interpret the behavior or the thinking of these mammals but, for a moment, the one who felt uncomfortable was I.

The joy of this unexpected encounter soon turned into the sorrow of seeing these beautiful creatures, so close to us by genre, confined in a space that was reducing quickly. What were they thinking? What were they feeling?

They never tried to force the net. Perhaps their faith in humans was great, or maybe they were completely unaware of what was happening.

Armchair, lookout and donkey have always been the three wooden boats used for fishing in the Tonnarella.

Every move, repeated by the crew and commanded by “the rais,” the head fisherman, is a journey back in time. Fishermen rise the nets three times a day by dint of arms, shrinking it and bringing it closer to the surface, fishing only what has to be fished.

All the fishes of no commercial interest are left into the sack.

The uncollected fish species are set in conditions to break free on their own: the same way they went in, they would get out, but not without feeling stressed.

Fish have no expression, in appearance at least, but the eyes of those dolphins, in that instant, expressed uncertainty, awareness of a potential danger, alarm status and need for an action: escape.

I was there, in front of them, only allowed to observe: while one was pushing down the bag using his nose, the other freed himself rolling around on the belly.

An example of group strategy, which leaves to understand how these mammals apply the result of reasoning to the sheer instinct.
One last gentle greeting, a bow to my lens and then off to freedom. I reconsidered the meaning of freedom.

No nets or barriers deprive us of freedom, but the helplessness and the resignation to accept a fate we do not master any longer.

The concept of eco-sustainability is as old as the sea. Ever since humankind began to take advantage of its resources for a living.
Preserve and not destroy: humankind knows how to do even that, and it is inherent in his nature. It’s enough to remember and take as a model an old craft, ancient like the sea: the fisherman.

The gradual loss of profit related to tuna fishing has also been the cause of the loss of interest by entrepreneurs, who regularly took under concession and set up, every year, the Tonnarella.

Over the years, the fishermen cooperatives of Camogli, took turns preparing seasonally the Tonnarella, but from the ‘80, management went to the Cooperative Fishermen of Camogli, one of the most important sector companies in Liguria, founded in 1974.
Even today, the cooperative proudly carries forward said tradition that, in addition to the long fishing season, engages fishermen for the rest of the year in the nets’ patient manufacturing operations, and the putting into the sea of the structure.

Over the past decade, to keep alive a dying profession, in collaboration with a local diving center, is permitted to a maximum of 5 divers at a time and under the supervision of an attentive guidance, to dive inside the grand chamber of the Tonnarella.

Divulgation, Eco tourism, awareness of their own origins, can do nothing but help us to preserve the cradle of life: the sea.

WORDS and PICTURES by Isabella Maffei

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