Let Us Keep Our Sciabica!

Italy | Liguria | Noli, Savona

Emilio is 47 and he’s a member of the Noli Anchovies Presidium.

“I started when I was a boy, like everyone. There was no work and to make a few coins I’d go help some fishermen who needed a hand. In exchange they gave you fish and when there was some money going around you’d earn something small.” No-one in Emilio’s family was a fisherman, and his mother wanted him to study and then work in a factory where he’d have a fixed wage and a safe job. But he had been obsessed with the sea (“seasick,” he calls it) since he was small, and there was no keeping him away.

“I learned everything I could working for other people until I was 23, when I bought my first boat. Then I got another one, then another and then yet another. I’m sure it wasn’t worth all the investments I made over the years but when you’ve got that sickness, there’s nothing you can do. The salt jams up the workings of your brain,” says Emilio.

The fishermen who belong to the Noli Anchovies Presidium are also members of a cooperative founded in the early 20th century as a mutual benefit society. The Presidium protects a delicious fish and an ancient fishing technique using a type of seine net called a sciabica, but also promotes a broader campaign in defense of all small-scale fishing in the Mediterranean. The small-scale fishing industry is an important cultural, touristic and economic resource, but we risk losing it as Europe panders to the interest of big oceanic fishing fleets.

“The craft of the fisherman is on its way out.” Emilio seems quite pessimistic about the future of his ancient trade, and he’s not unjustified. European Union regulations are blocking the Noli fishermen from using their traditional techniques. “We’ve been using the sciabica for centuries and centuries in these parts and our seabeds aren’t suffering. The European Union compared our hand-pulled nets to the ones used in Sweden, where nets 40 times bigger than ours are pulled by ocean-going motor trawlers with very powerful engines,” he says. Banning the use of these nets here means wiping out the whole social and economic sphere that revolves around these fishermen.

Fishing with sciabica nets is typical of the Mediterranean, though identical techniques are found around the world. The nets can be used for catching many fish, including the cicciarelli (sand eels) made famous by the Presidium. The net is pulled tight to form an arc, and while originally it was dragged by fishermen walking through shallow water, it is now pulled along the shore from a boat. Though the dimensions are very different, it does resemble a dragnet, and this has created some confusion. But the Italian government has carried out a number of studies showing that sciabica fishing is actually a very low-impact method. The net has a row of corks along the bottom that keep it from scraping on the seabed; in fact it is used to catch fish like cicciarelli that don’t live on the sea floor.

Nadia Repetto, Slow Food Liguria’s regional sea and environment adviser, explains: “The question of fishing cicciarelli came up around 30 years ago, when 3 millimeter nets were banned unless you had a special permit, for example to catch whitebait. Even though the cicciarelli are small, reaching no more than 15 centimeters when adult, they’re still fully grown, so there were no exceptions for them. Many fishermen used the permit for fishing whitebait to also catch some cicciarelli, which were of considerable commercial value.”

However, in June 2010 the European Union blocked all the special fishing exceptions, which had represented a ray of hope for preserving traditional fishing in the Mediterranean. This, along with the total ban on using small-meshed nets to catch whitebait, meant cicciarelli could no longer be caught. But the truth is that this species is fished by very few fishermen and is not at risk. It is not even subject to any size restrictions. The fishing method is very difficult and only possible when the weather is good and the sea is calm. The fish live in deep water and only come up to the surface to feed. When the fishermen see a shoal coming up to the surface, they circle around with their boat, creating a kind of sack with the net, which is then taken to the shore. Additionally, this species lives in rare patches of deep water close to the coast. In all of Liguria, cicciarelli are only caught in Noli, where the rugged coastline means there are deep waters near the shore. Their fishing is further limited because it can only take place when the weather is good, mostly in the summer, and usually happens on no more than 100 days in the year.

“As part of the management plan for cicciarelli fishing, the Liguria Regional Authority is conducting research in Noli to allow this small fishing tradition to continue. At the moment the University of Genoa is carrying out studies to provide the European Union with comprehensive and convincing data,” continues Nadia. If they can’t get an exception for their sciabica nets, the fishermen will have to use trammel nets. “Before we were divided into groups. Some of the local fishermen used the trammel nets and some the sciabica. The two techniques meant different species could be fished at different times of the year, using the trammel nets in the winter and the sciabica in the summer. That meant less pressure on individual species. And alternating the techniques and the catch also meant that the supply was more varied. If now we’re all forced to use trammel nets the supply will be more limited, and if we all have the same thing it will be even harder to make something from selling the fish,” says Emilio.

Trammel nets are fixed nets, left in the sea. They are made up of three layers of net, two outer wide-meshed nets and an inner small-meshed net. Fish put their heads through the nets and become stuck in the mesh. The nets are pulled in using the attached floats. They are used to catch white fish like mullet, generally during the winter. Calm weather is not necessary for this fishing method, so boats can go out even when the sea is choppy. For the last 20 years Emilio has been fishing in good weather and calm seas, mostly during the summer, and he’s doubtful about having to change his habits. “Fishing with trammels goes on until November or December. You have to pull them in and you risk hurting yourself!”

“Changing the type of fishing would also mean changing our way of life and of experiencing the sea,” he continues. “With the trammels you dock at the port and you can also go fishing on your own. With the sciabica you need at least two people, three is better, and when you come in you take the boat back to the shore. Part of what makes Noli unique is seeing all the boats pulled up on the beach.”

The banning of this technique would lead to the disappearance of many other things, but we are hopeful that further research into this specific case can convince the European Union that one size doesn’t fit all. Yes, the sciabica looks similar to a dragnet, but only at first glance. The same fishing technique in different seas, like the Mediterranean and the Northern European sea, can have very different effects on the environment, and it takes a careful eye to understand this. The alternation of fishing techniques in Noli between the summer and winter is not common in the rest of Europe, but could be a good way to preserve the marine habitat and relieve the pressure on fish stocks.

To contact the Presidium

[email protected]

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