The Camogli "Tonnarella"

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Photos and Essay by Isabella Maffei - Special Mention winner Ocean Geographic's Photo Journalist of the Year award

A step back in time between eco-sustainability and culture. Tuna fishing is a piece of food culture still persisting in northern Italy, safeguarded and accepted in one of the most famous marine protected areas in the world: the Portofino Marine Reserve.

It is an ancient art, lost in a limbo of confusion and horror, associated with words such as overfishing, exploitation of resources, and destruction of the seabed. It was not always like this, and in this last stronghold of awareness, for hundreds of years, fishing cooperatives have kept alive the hope that humans and the sea can continue to co-exist without one sinking the 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 open-sea fishing has become more and more destructive, and bottom trawls seriously damage the deep seabed, the activities taking place around the "Tonnarella" maintain all the charm of the old fisherman's craft. Today, like centuries ago, the nets are lowered each year, from April to late September, at the same spot off the coast, enclosed between Camogli and Punta Chiappa (GE). Handwoven by tuna fishermen, the "tonnarotti" use twisted coconut fibres. Once the nets are dropped underwater, they are quickly colonised by marine organisms, thus making them difficult to detect by migratory fishes. The correct positioning of the nets is the result of ancient observational strategies about tuna habits.

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In Spring, the fish enter through the Gibraltar Strait, follow the temperate surface currents essential for their reproduction, and then return from where they came in Autumn. It is said that in carrying out this migration towards the Ligurian Sea, the tuna always keep the land to their left side, as if watching with a single eye. In following this path, the tuna is deceived by the barrage created by the "foot" (the piece of net anchored to the ground, placed transversely across 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, it can only enter into the various rooms until arriving to the death room, where its fate is sealed. It is selective fishing, not destructive. But 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, immature fish too small for selling also sneak in, as well as species not commercially desirable such as sunfishes, mobulas and many others, which are released when lifting the nets. For the first time in living memory, two dolphins entered the net, driven by curiosity or perhaps attracted by the fish, and I was able to document this rarity. Although they were aware of being in a restricted environment, they did not seem frightened by the situation. On 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.

Vocalisations were frequent, perhaps to locate the net that in some parts, especially in the backlight, became almost invisible. They tried to interact with me for 50 minutes! 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. They never tried to force the net. Perhaps their faith in humans was great, or maybe they were completely unaware of what was happening. What were they thinking? What were they feeling?

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Armchair, Lookout and Donkey have long been the three wooden boats used for fishing in the Tonnarella. Every move, repeated by the crew and commanded by "the rais" or head fisherman, is a journey back in time. Fishermen raise the nets three times a day. All the fishes of no commercial interest are left in the sack where they will eventually break free on their own but not without some stress. 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 and need for escape. Painfully, I was right in front of them, unable to help, only allowed to observe. While one was pushing down the bag using his nose, the other freed himself by rolling around on his belly. This example of group strategy left me to wonder if these mammals were applying logical reasoning or reacting out of sheer instinct. One last gentle greeting, a bow to my lens and then they were off to freedom.

The concept of eco-sustainability is as old as the sea: preserve, do not destroy. The gradual loss of profits from tuna fishing has led to the loss of interest by entrepreneurs, who set up the Tonnarella annually. Over the years, the fishermen cooperatives of Camogli took turns seasonally preparing the Tonnarella, but since the 80s, 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 this tradition that, in addition to the long fishing season, engages fishermen for the rest of the year in the nets' manufacturing operations. To keep this dying profession alive over the past decade, the cooperative partnered with a local dive centre to allow a maximum of 5 divers at a time under the supervision of an attentive guide, to dive inside the grand chamber of the Tonnarella. Only through eco-tourism, education and awareness can we preserve the cradle of life: the ocean.

Essay and images by Isabella Maffei ( OG 42)

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