The tuna fishery

The origins of tuna fishing in the Mediterranean reach back to the coast of North Africa. They are the same as those of the Tabarkan community, which sailed in those distant waters many years ago. The language spoken by the tuna fishermen reveals that this ancient tradition derives from the Arab world: Rais (king), is the single chief who coordinates the actions of the fishermen at work.

The Carloforte traditional tuna fishery is one of the last remaining active in the Mediterranean. Tonnara is the set of nets that are kept at sea when it is time: it is the system, or rather the island of nets, consisting of a series of chambers connected one to the other, in the last of which, the mattanza (the killing) takes place.
Tonnara is, however, also the act of fishing, and the building on land that houses the work and the workers. It is also, essentially, a way of fishing for tuna: in the past, the most widespread. A way that is also it’s own world requiring the participation of a group of people, on land and at sea, called upon to carry out precise tasks with skill and without error. Everyone is involved in the enterprise, collaborating in operations that will lead to the mattanza of the great prey, and likewise taking part in a collective ritual, which still today attracts a large part of Carolfortini every year.

The crew

The adventure for the tonnarotti (tuna workers) begins in April: a manager will direct the processing of the catch, and will then be responsible for the crew on land, made up of cooks, tinsmiths, oilers, dispensers, storekeepers and overseers. The other team is already at sea, lowering nets and tending them. By day they are on the bastarda boat, watching the deep sea for the arrival of the fish; by night they are on the schifetto boat, their eyes lost in the darkness of the waves. Everyone has their own task to perform, the wellbeing of the boat they work on, so carefully built and kept in good condition all year round by the expert craftsmen in the town. And if the boats are named musciora, vascello, capo-rais, palischermotti, bastarde, barbariccio and the schifetti, the men who work on them are the bastardieri, the musciarieri, the palischermieri, who are joined specialist boat builders to make up a close-knit community, all answering to the person who governs every gesture and every breath at the tuna fishery: the Rais (king).

La mattanza (the killing)

It is the Rais who decides when it is time for the mattanza, sometime between mid-May and mid-June: he oversees the passage of the tuna, when the maze of nets are put out to sea, looked after, and supervised. He waits for the most opportune moment. And then, the evening before fishing, he turns to the head of the baracca (hut) on land, and utters a laconic duman se va in etu (tomorrow we go to the top.) And that is the anticipated signal.
At first light, aboard the musciòra boat, he sails the length and breadth of the tuna nets, watching the tuna move, weighing them with his eyes, while the crew from the boats tightly packed in a circle manoeuvre the net doors after the fish have passed from one chamber to another. The silence is broken only by the few shouted orders. Then the large predators cross the western chamber to enter the death chamber: the last door closes and the Rais invites the crew to pray before the slaughter. The tuna fishermen use their arms to lift the swaying body of the net, and soon the water becomes agitated as the frightened tuna wriggle, surface, clutch and bump into the barbaricciu – the boat at the centre of the bedlam, from which the Rais gives the most eagerly awaited order: matta! matta! (kill! kill!). With their hands on the poles, the tuna fishermen bring the tuna closer to the vessel’s and the Rais‘ boat, where they will be hoisted aboard, while the sea turns red.

Old-fashioned fishing that respects the environment

Much of the world that has grown up around the great collective ritual of the tuna fishery has changed over the course of history: while at one time the fishing fleet (the barcareccio) was brought to the site by tugboats driven by hand, today it is motorboats; while at one time the buyers of the catch were the locals, today it is mainly Japan’s great sushi artists who want it for themselves. And yet the living language has preserved the sense of what it was for centuries, and even today, when things have changed, the words and names of things are still the same. Much of the work is still carried out as it was in past centuries: the tuna trap is still the least harmful to the species, despite its bloody nature. It is the most sustainable in the way it chooses which fish to catch and spares the others.
In its direct confrontation with the strength of the tuna, it has always been about respect for the animal and the heartfelt need to safeguard its natural environment.


Photography: Cédric Dasesson