‘There’s blood in the water for months,’ explains the tour guide at the Museo Civico di Carolforte. She’s been telling us about the mattanza, the traditional killing of blue-fin tuna (tonno rosso) in May and June each year as the fish swim past the Isola di San Pietro off the west coast of Sardinia on their way to spawn. We were visiting in October so didn’t witness the scene first hand. It is, by all accounts, quite a spectacle. Indeed, on the island of Favignana, the last-remaining tonnara in Sicily, some argue that it has become more of a display for tourism than a work activity justified by the size of the catch (van Ginkel, 2005). In any case, the mattanza itself is the culmination of a much bigger process.

First, there are the nets. The tuna are effectively trapped in an elaborate series of nets, known as a tonnara, anchored at sea. Taken out of their winter storage, the nets must be repaired and arranged ready to be put in position. If the whole process of tuna-fishing is a very male dominated one, women are nevertheless involved in the making and mending of the nets (van Ginkel, 2005). Although the details of the sizes of the sections are tightly guarded secrets, the pieces are numerous: 1,812 in Favignana, calculates Theresa Maggio (1990: 112). Getting this ‘unseen architecture’ (Maggio, 1990: 129) in place at sea is not at all straightforward. Each section of the nets must be secured, which means using anchors that are themselves as heavy as the tuna.

In the model of the tonnara at the Museo Civico di Carolforte in the images above, the nets form a T-shape (seen here on its side). The length of the T (in the large photo on the left) is the section the tuna first encounter which impedes their forward movement. As a result they are channelled towards a series of ‘rooms’ (along the top of the T) until they reach the camera delle morte, the death chamber (shown photographed from above in the bottom right image). The ‘rooms’ that the nets create need to be large (up to 100meters long) so the tuna can move easily, which they must do to be able to breathe and continue to reproduce. Work on the nets doesn’t end when they are in place; they have to be maintained. The adult tuna that are coming up against them are large (more than 100kilos), strong and fast. And there’s the work of counting the number of tuna trapped too – through glass-bottomed buckets, or by the feel of vibrations on a line dropped into the different rooms (Longo, 2009: 143) – until the rais, the head fisherman, decides the time is right…

It’s hard to overstate the significance and status of the rais in this world. He has near-total authority, retains his title and is given ongoing respect into retirement (and beyond the grave, with headstones marked, ‘rais’). He has a profound understanding of the sea and of the tonnara. Indeed, all the tonarotti (the tuna fishers) are highly skilled mariners, learning what to do through a kind of apprenticeship system, and although there is a strong formal hierarchy and division of labour, in practice, the men turn their hands to many aspects of the work (Longo, 2009: 127). It is a highly labour-intensive process, a total bodily and sensory experience of work, and one they talk about in terms of dignity and gratification, as well as hard work (Longo, 2009: 148).

When the rais gives the signal, the tonnarotti gather in specially designed boats around the edge of the camera delle morte. This final chamber differs from the others as it also has ‘floor’. This means that the net can be raised, bringing the tuna closer to the surface. That is when the slaughter of the increasingly tired tuna takes place. It relies on the close cooperation of the tonarotti who kill the fish in a ritualised way (van Ginkel, 2005: 73), accompanied by traditional songs and prayers, and using hooks, gaffs and knives, as in the images here, one old (taken from the website of Isola di Piana), one more recent (taken from Italia a Tavola).

Although it has been criticised by environmental movements, and in spite of the fact that the blue-fin tuna is an endangered species, killing tuna in this way has not been widely contested, in comparison with the whale drive for instance, with which it has a lot in common. In the latter, animal rights have come to trump traditional practices associated with ‘cultural rights’ in public debate (van Ginkel, 2005). Trapping tuna is thought to be one of the oldest forms of industrial fishing still in existence, originally an Arab practice, and at least 1200 years old. Once found all across the Mediterranean, there are now just a few tonnare still in operation. In these cases, people still work and live from the catch. When it is good, as it was last year on the Isola di San Pietro we were told, life improves for everyone. As one of the tonarotti in Theresa Maggio’s study of Favignana explains:

‘You do it because it’s survival. You do it to live. Or you don’t choose this life. You become a banker. It’s not for the violence. It’s not something I do for pleasure, or to please others. It’s survival’ (Maggio, 1990: 127).

Whether or not it’s cruel, the quantity of tuna caught in this way is tiny compared to the industrial scale and methods of fishing: long lines of up to 50 miles, and purse-seines that can catch thousands, even tens of thousands of fish at once. In contrast to the traditional practices, this is highly capital intensive, and the catch needs to be enormous for profits to be maintained (Longo, 2009: 169). However, these methods also catch younger tuna, including those of pre-spawning age, with the effect of hugely depleting stocks into the future. It is the apparent insatiability of the Japanese market that makes fishing them in this way so profitable, at least in the short-term, albeit with the risk of total collapse in the Mediterranean (Longo, 2009). If a fish of less than 30 kilos is amongst those in the traps off the coast of the Isola di San Pietro, it is freed. Most of those killed are mature adult fish in excess of 100 kilos.

Once the tuna is caught, there is other work to do still. Although nowadays a large share of the tuna is sent directly to Japan, some is still gutted, cooked and tinned, and the roe dried in Sardinia. The canning factory no longer exists on the island, but the museum houses a delightful model made by local school children of how the factory – and occupational community – was believed to have been organised in the late 19th century. Fish larger than the people working on them are seen to be gutted and cut into pieces (by men) and cooked (by women). And, today, as then, the roe of the tuna continues to be dried locally by traditional methods to make bottarga.

After the final mattanza of the season, the work of anchoring the nets in place has to be undone. They must be packed away for next year when the process begins all over again…

1. Longo, Stefano B (2009) Global Sushi, Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Oregon.
2. Maggio, T (2000) Mattanza: Love and Death in the Sea of Sicily, Perseus Publishing.
3. van Ginkel, Rob (2005) ‘Killing Giants of the Sea: Contentious Heritage and the Politics of Culture’, Journal of Mediterranean Studies 15(1): 71-98.