The Island’s Last Fish-Salter

Italy | Sicilia | Favignana Island, Trapani

Pietro Bevilacqua and his family have been salting bluefin tuna roe on the island of Favignana since 1991.

Pietro comes from a family of fishermen, but his real mentor is his father-in-law, the last master fish-salter at the Florio factory in Favignana. It was the biggest tuna-processing factory in Europe until it closed its doors in 1980. Now the factory, 30,000 square meters of history, “should be a cultural and touristic jewel, an extraordinary museum of the sea,” according to article published in the newspaper La Repubblica in summer 2011. “Instead, it is languishing. It is only thanks to three volunteers from the island, who serve as guides to the entranced tourists, that Trapani’s archeological office manages at least to open it for two hours a day.”

In 1991, when it seemed as though the salter’s craft would be lost forever, Pietro asked his father-in-law to pass his knowledge on to him and his family. That was the start of a family-run business producing the salted tuna roe called bottarga in Italian. “He taught us the tricks of the trade and now the whole family helps with the business, sharing the different roles.”

Favignana’s tonnara (tuna port) has by now been closed for 30 years and the only way to get the tuna roe is to buy it from elsewhere in Sicily or Japan. Pietro and his family distribute their product locally and in a few other Italian regions, but production is declining because of the cost of the raw material, which is rising steadily as tuna catches fall. “Soon it won’t make any sense to process bluefin tuna eggs,” says Pietro. “The raw material is becoming far too expensive.”

Bluefin tuna bottarga was a Presidium until 2008, when Slow Food, in support of the campaign against bluefin tuna fishing, decided to suspend it. “The tuna issue needs to be tackled in a significant way. But unfortunately reducing tuna quotas in European countries alone won’t change much. North African countries and Japan can fish as much as they like, in European waters too,” laments Pietro. “We need stricter regulation.”

Even though tuna is no longer caught in the waters around the island, fish are still caught on a small scale using purse seines. “I was born and grew up on Favignana and I’ve been able to see all the changes that have taken place on this island,” says Pietro. “When it comes to fishing, what’s changed is the method: in the past fishing was much more selective. For example, to catch picarel, you used a kind of seine net. It looks like a dragnet but it isn’t, and it was banned. In the winter they used to catch picarel and sand eels, and anchovies and mackerel in the summer. These days the fall in fish stocks is very visible, and many fishermen compensate for the low quantities by using technologies like sonar. Many of the deep-sea fishermen who use fishing lamps use sonar, here in Favignana.”

The island’s fishermen are connected to this place and aware of the problems created by fishing here. “The islanders have some ethics!” says Pietro. The real issues are caused by the large fishing boats that come from the Sicilian coast and make raids on the sea around the island using dragnets. They arrive at night, often when the weather is bad, and fish with their lights off. Many come during the squid-fishing season, for example.This area has the ideal conditions for fish to reproduce, but they are being hindered by this type of illegal and clumsy fishing, which ignores fishing bans and damages their habitat and ecosystem.

According to Pietro there is little chance of continuing to make a living from fishing on Favignana. “We need important and decisive initiatives, like limiting fishing for longer periods, to allow the repopulation of these waters,” he says. “But to do that, the families of the fishermen would have to be compensated, and with the crisis we’re currently experiencing, I doubt that will be possible.” Many young fishermen were initially attracted by the subsidies that guaranteed a break for the fish, an initiative started years ago that paid fishermen not to fish in certain periods, allowing the different species in the area a chance to reproduce.

In the summer, many families turn to fishing tourism to supplement their income, returning to commercial fishing in the winter. Fishing tourism allows them to limit the quantity of their catch, and they can then sell the day’s fish to the tourists. Just one example of how an island traditionally inhabited by fishing families must find a new way forward, as the impoverishment of the seas makes their old way of life untenable.

Pietro Bevilacqua

[email protected]

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