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Science, History And Culture Of Sardinian Tuna Fishing

Economics +1 more

The Mediterranean Sea and, in particular, the cristallina waters of Sardinia areconfronting a paradox of marine preservation, according to Katherine Emery.

On the one hand, Italian coastal resources are prized nationally and internationally for their natural beauty as well as economic and recreational uses. On the other hand, deep-seated Italian cultural values and traditions, such as the desire for high-quality fresh fish in local cuisines and the continuity of ancient fishing communities, as well as the demands of tourist and real-estate industries, are contributing to the destruction of marine ecosystems. The synthesis presented here offers a unique perspective combining historical, scientific, and cultural factors important to one Sardinian tonnara in the context of the larger global debate about Atlantic bluefin tuna conservation.

Fish and fishing in the Mediterranean and Italy

The word ‘Mediterranean’ stems from the Latin words medius [middle] and terra [land, earth]: middle of the earth. Ancient Romans referred to it as “Mare nostrum” or “our sea”: “the territory of or under the control of the European Mediterranean countries, especially Italy.” Today, the Mediterranean Sea is still an important mutually used resource integral to littoral and inland states’ cultures and trade.

The Mediterranean region has a rich fish and fishing culture, complicated by the fact that the sea’s resources are shared by many users often at odds with one another. Despite the expansion of the Mediterranean fishing fleet in the 1970s and 1980s, which is believed to have contributed to ecological destruction and financial difficulties for numerous fishermen, fleets continue to grow in many areas, as do local populations. Fisheries and fish products are essential in the Mediterranean region because of their roles in providing “food security” and employment. In Italy, which ranks among the world’s leading developed economies, in particular, food quality and safety are of great importance to consumers; genetically modified crop production is banned, and many Italians are resistant to genetically modified aquaculture. Nevertheless, there is no consensus concerning the ways in which Mediterranean seafood may be best managed for its long-term sustainability. For example, in the case of Atlantic bluefin tuna, which migrate through the Mediterranean on the way to their breeding grounds, there is disagreement among scientists, policy makers, and conservationists about how the local tuna fisheries may best be regulated.

A paradox: many contemporary Italians want their millennial culture of fish and fishing to continue to exist, while at the same time prioritizing immediate access to abundant, fresh and high-quality seafood. Over the last three decades, reduced fish stocks and increased fishing restrictions have lowered the Italian fishing industry’s profile in the national and international economy. Nevertheless, despite often low incomes that fishermen earn, Italian fisheries continue to be economically significant because they provide local jobs and seafood production. An array of institutions and cooperatives are responsible for the Italian fishing industry and marine resource management. These agencies and organizations help to determine how to meet the constantly growing demand for seafood both inside and outside of Italy. They are not, however, the only factor involved in the evolution of the culture of fish and fishing around the country. Consumer demand for seafood in Italy is higher than ever, and evolving gender and work roles are now modifying traditional customs in relation to how fish is purchased, prepared and consumed. In step with changes in the marketplace, Italians’ cultural values and seafood views have evolved over time.

Economics, culture and conservation clash

A number of recent studies analyze Mediterranean fishing communities and their attempts to balance economic, cultural, and environmental interests. On the one hand, in many countries, national governments endorse economic growth via development and tourism at the expense of traditional fishing communities. For example, increased globalization and funds are creating new transportation hubs along the coast of northern Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Malta, and Tunisia. Morocco’s new seaport, near Tangier, is predicted to be one of the largest container ports in the Mediterranean, after Rotterdam. On the other hand, marine conservation and restoration are also being advocated around the Mediterranean, sometimes by nongovernmental groups and individuals. For example, one wealthy Italian pursues protecting the Sardinian coast from resort tourism by acting as the "Ambassador for the Coasts" in the United Nation’s Environment Programme. The UN’s Environment Programme promotes bilateral agreements to strengthen marine conservation collaboration between countries within the Mediterranean basin; for example, in 2007 and 2008 there were discussions about expanding marine protected areas and scientific collaboration offshore of Sardinia. These actions demonstrate that there are Italians (and others) today who are actively working to protect the marine environment. At this point, it is unclear whether or not these UN programs will succeed. While many of the proposed projects may promote coastal health, others may provide economic progress at the potential expense of the Mediterranean’s unique ecology and traditional fishing cultures.

One specific issue exemplifying the conflict between science, policy, and conservation is whether or not to fish Atlantic bluefin tuna during their annual migration through the Mediterranean. Each year, Atlantic bluefin tuna show strong natal homing (returning to their spawning grounds) in the Gulf of Mexico and the eastern and western Mediterranean Sea. Atlantic bluefin tuna enter the Mediterranean Sea through the Strait of Gibraltar, migrating annually to spawn in the places where they were born, mainly in the Ionian, Tyrrhenian, and Balearic seas. For hundreds of years, the tuna have been caught during their Mediterranean Sea travels, and thus, aspects of Mediterranean marine culture and economics are vitally connected to their annual migration. Described in greater detail later in this article, critical studies investigate the migrating behavior of the Atlantic bluefin tuna to better understand how the population is subdivided and the related consequences for fishery management and conservation. Environmentalists across the globe advocate for Atlantic bluefin tuna conservation through a number of methods, including dramatically decreasing its fishing in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, boycotting its sale to retailers, restaurants, and consumers, or establishing property rights for fishermen. The World Wildlife Fund Mediterranean (WWF) published a report in spring 2008 describing the escalating race to harvest bluefin tuna, despite dwindling stocks and fleet overcapacity. Purse seiners, longlines, and fixed nets (such as those used in the tonnare in Sardinia) are used to catch bluefin tuna. An estimated 617 purse seiners, equipped with the most efficient gear, fish the Mediterranean for bluefin tuna. These boats have a yearly catch potential of 54,783 metric tons, almost double the 2008 legal total allowable catch of 28,500 metric tons, which has been set by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). After Turkey, Italy has the second highest purse seine fleet overcapacity for bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean Sea.

The plight of Atlantic bluefin tuna and its Mediterranean fishery reach beyond conservation groups to industry and global policy forums. International seafood industry, trade, and sustainable development groups report regular news updates on tuna fishing rules; one report, Trade and Biological Resources News Digest (Bridges Trade BioRes), produced by the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development in collaboration with International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s oldest and largest global environmental network with over one thousand government and NGO members, addresses the important intersection of trade and biological resources. In some cases, industry groups openly recognize the need to conserve tuna resources. For example, James Wright, assistant editor of, states that “a balance must be struck between protecting natural resources and preserving the industries that depend on them. But the alarm bells about bluefin tuna have been sounding for years, and ICCAT chooses to hit the snooze button every time. Without sustainable tuna stocks, there soon won't be much of an industry to preserve.” Concern is high for Atlantic bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean because after these great predators migrate through the Strait of Gibraltar, on their way to spawning grounds around the Balearic Islands, Tyrrhenian Sea, and central and eastern Mediterranean, they are fished at what numerous scientists believe to be unsustainable levels by the fleets of many countries, including Italy. Despite a push for conservation by many international scientists and environmental activists before a catastrophic collapse of the bluefin tuna stocks occurs, growing global demand for tuna has encouraged increased rather than reduced fishing efforts.

June 2010