Three days ago, in the middle of the night, I was sat on a small wooden fishing boat in the Aeolian Islands. I was accompanying Antonello, a local artisanal fisherman – the last remaining local fisherman on the island of Salina. That night we caught 15kg of small fish and Antonello made just enough money to pay for fuel, repair his nets, maintain his boat and feed his family.
This was not always the case in the Aeolian Islands. These waters were once teaming with bluefin tuna, swordfish, amberjack and grouper. Elderly fishermen tell stories of the days of prosperity but their children have been left with little to catch due to years of mismanaged, industrial and illegal fishing. Stocks have collapsed, quotas are unavailable and the Aeolian sea is a shadow of its former self.
This is why Blue is working with the Aeolian Islands Preservation Fund to create a marine protected area (MPA) around the islands in order to restore once abundant fish stocks, preserve marine habitats and manage the Aeolian waters efficiently. We will tackle illegal fishing, restrict industrial fishing from ‘foreign’ vessels and promote a sustainable local fishery.
The Italian government has agreed to designate an MPA by 2019. Before this designation there is much work to do to ensure that the MPA is designed and managed in a way that makes it most effective and is supported by local stakeholders. The first step is to engage with the local community and show them the benefits that can come with marine protection and management.
The day before I went fishing I was in the mayor of Lipari’s office, collecting the keys to the building which will become a new Marine Discovery and Education Centre – a hub for spreading information about the Aeolian marine environment. This is not only intended to foster local awareness, but also to educate some of the 200,000 or so tourists who visit the islands each summer.
Two hours later I was meeting with the head of local fisheries, discussing plans for a new fish market on the harbour – a place where local fishermen can bring their catch, have access to chiller facilities to keep their fish fresh and sell sustainably caught, high quality fish at a good price. This will be a key part of applying Blue’s ‘Lyme Bay model’ to the Aeolians. The Lyme Bay project has linked local fishermen who follow a strict ‘code of conduct’ with national suppliers. A similar model can work in the Aeolians, benefiting both the fishermen and the marine environment.
Later that afternoon I was aboard another local fishing boat with fisherman, Franco Puglisi addressing the issue of dolphins, which are increasingly (probably due to lack of prey) stealing fish and squid from the fishermen and damaging nets in the process. In an attempt to resolve this conflict, Blue is supplying ‘pingers’ – high frequency acoustic devices that deter dolphins.
Both Antonello and Franco agree that they will be the last of their kind unless fishing is regulated within an MPA. They propose less gear on boats, greater respect of spawning seasons, outlawing illegal fishing methods such as fish aggregation devices and preventing large industrial fishing vessels from entering the waters surrounding the islands.
The evening was spent with two brothers – retired fishermen. They regaled me with anecdotes of swordfish throwing themselves into the boats, tuna as large as Fiat 500s and seagrass meadows so abundant that they could entangle and drown a man if he fell overboard. The significance of the last statement is that these meadows absorb 35 times more carbon than tropical rainforests, but are rapidly diminishing due to recreational anchoring and pollution.
I stepped off of Antonello’s small boat that night with a sense of hope. This man fished with respect for the sea. We caught two species of fish with zero bycatch. His nets were laid and retrieved carefully and before we had made it home for dinner he had sold three bags of fresh fish to passing locals. He told me that all he wanted was to keep fishing and make a modest living. Not an unreasonable aspiration from the last fisherman on Salina.
The community is beginning to get behind Blue’s project, which if successful will create a new model of marine management in the Mediterranean – a model by which local fishermen once again become custodians of their waters and the large, predatory fish that once made them proud to be called fishermen, or as they are locally known, ‘il pescatori’.
‘If you take away the economy from the island, the island will die. Local people must be engaged in employment created by a marine protected area.’ Antonello, local fisher, Salina Island