10th Jun 2023


How Italy's passion for fish is destroying its seas

  • 'It really is in the interest of the fishing industry itself to do more to protect the Mediterranean biodiversity. It will not be an easy transition, because the socio-economic aspect needs to be managed' according to researcher Saša Raicevich (Photo: Mar Cabra)

The Mediterranean is the world's most overfished sea.

According to the Rome-based United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 75 percent of its fish stocks are exploited in an unsustainable way.

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  • Many small-scale fishermen who have been the mainstay of Italian maritime communities for centuries are suffering (Photo: Valentina Saini)

This is bad news for all countries in the area, but especially for Italy, which has the largest fleet in the EU by the number of vessels. Many coastal towns and the welfare of hundreds of thousands of Italians depend on fishing.

The problem is that there is fewer and fewer fish in the Mediterranean. "The situation is dire for most of the commercial species," says Roberto Danovaro, professor of marine biology and president of the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn in Naples.

"I've been fishing since 1967, I started on my father's boat" tells an old fisherman who asks not to have his name used.

"Once he told me that when I began, there was half as much fishing as when he started out again after the war, in 1946. Well, I can tell you that compared to when I was a young man, now there's one-hundredth of the catch".

For millions of Italians, the perfect dinner is a fish dinner, such as spaghetti with clams, or a juicy swordfish steak.

"The biggest fish market in Italy is in Milan, hundreds of kilometres from the sea," says a restaurant owner from Padua, in the northeast of the country. "That city is like a big black hole that swallows up the best fish in Italy, leaving us with only the second-best".

But Italy's passion for shrimp and tuna has a devastating impact. Take the Adriatic. A sea that was once extremely rich in fish is turning into a desert. So much so, that the fishermen of Goro, a small coastal town, return to the sea after the seasonal fishing ban, and their nets fill up with nothing but worms.

"Bottom-trawling is extremely intense in the Adriatic. It is even more intense than in North America's Georges Bank" notes Danovaro.

"Depending on the area, it is estimated that each square metre suffers bottom trawling one to three times a year. The Adriatic used to be a sea with complex, rich ecosystems. Now it has become a huge field for harvesting fish and shellfish".

"Perhaps there is a problem of overfishing in the Mediterranean. But in Italy we are too obsessed with food to realize it," says the Padua restaurant owner, who doesn't want to reveal his name for fear of angering his colleagues. "Customers are always asking for fish. If they don't find it on the menu, they complain".

Taboo topic

Yet sea over-exploitation is almost a taboo in Italy. To the point that the available data might not provide a realistic representation of the phenomenon.

"In my opinion, the data provided are not accurate" Danovaro points out. "There is too much connivance between a part of the fishery-research world and the fishery industry. This tends to provide information that helps maintain the status quo".

So-called "illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU)" fishing is one of the problems. In the first days of June alone, the Italian coast guard seized illegal nets between 2.5 and five km long.

The effects of illegal fishing are devastating: not only it destroys fish stocks, but also the habitats where fish reproduce, the so-called nurseries. This is happening, for example, in Tuscany's Secche di Vada [Vada's shoals].

Here, trawling has been impacting heavily on the seabed of posidonia, a type of Mediterranean seagrass.

"Posidonia meadows are like a marine forest: they provide the habitat and living conditions for juvenile fish. They also play a key role in CO2 absorption", stresses Marco Gennai, vice-president of Salviamo le Secche di Vada, an environmental association based in the Tuscan town of Rosignano Solvay.

But it is not just about illegal fishing: some of the equipment used is itself devastating.

"Thanks to many economic aids, in recent years there has been a reduction in the fishing fleet, which has been positive," says Attilio Rinaldi, president of the Foundation Centro Ricerche Marine.

"But we should also intervene on certain forms of regulated and legal fishing, that are quite questionable, due to the damage they cause to the seafloor, which is vital for the reproduction of fish and other marine organisms". For example, the rapido, a stiff-mouthed trawl used for demersal fishing.

"Degraded ecosystems are the most vulnerable to alien species and climate change" observes Saša Raicevich, a researcher at the Istituto Superiore per la Protezione e la Ricerca Ambientale (ISPRA).

"So it really is in the interest of the community, but also of the fishing industry itself, to do more to protect the Mediterranean and its biodiversity. It will not be an easy transition, because the socio-economic aspect needs to be managed".

Shrinking sardines

If species such as tuna and swordfish are struggling, or becoming smaller and smaller (this is the case of sardines), so are many small-scale fishermen who have been the mainstay of Italian maritime communities for centuries.

"Italy should follow the example of Spain with the Cantabrian Sea. They closed the fishery for anchovies and other species a couple of years. Then they reopened by quotas and now they are managing to guarantee both the quality of the product and the continuity of fishing," says the old fisherman.

"To continue like this is just agony. Our future and that of our children is at stake".

Author bio

Valentina Saini is a freelance journalist specialising in Italian social issues and politics, gender issues and the Middle East and North Africa region.

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