Favignana: The last tonnaras

Sicily Tonnara

In Sicilian and Sardinian last tonnare, the ancient mattanza rite, a traditional tuna-fishing technique, still exist. Every year at the end of springtime huge tuna migrate from the Atlantic Ocean to the warmer Mediterranean waters. These fish can reach the weight of 400 kilos and they are captured and loaded on board of the boats using only the fishermen’s arm strength. Colossal nets are hoisted by hand under the supervision of the Rais, the supreme chief, and the fishermen tune up ancient songs while the sea turns red with tuna’s blood and is tossed by their last pangs of life. It is a remaining of an archaic world that is now difficult to understand; a world where tradition and religion, struggle for life and search of wealth, love and death were mixed up.

This is undoubtedly a cruel fishing technique, but an extremely selective one, and probably for this reason it is also much less detrimental to the environment than trawling or than spadare.

Sicily Tonnara

Mattanza is the bloody final act of a preparation process which lasts for months and has remained unchanged for centuries: its origin goes so far back in time that it is lost.

Even the traditional songs that are sung during fishing are so old that have become partially incomprehensible to the very fishermen.

Tonnare are complex fixed-net systems a few kilometers long (and their plants for the fish processing). There were hundreds of them in the Mediterranean sea until the first half of the XX century, but now, due both to the diminishing number of tuna caused by pollution and intensive fishing, and the market laws that have made this fishing technique less and less cheap, there are only about ten tonnare left in the whole Mediterranean sea.

Two of them still struggle to survive in Sicily: Bonagia’s (not far from Trapani) and Favignana’s, as well as Carloforte in Sardinia.

The Northern bluefin tuna (thunnus thynnus) holds an almost mythic position among the world’s pelagic fish.

Sicily Tonnara

Aristotle described the migratory and reproductive habits of tuna in his treatise History of Animals, written in 350 B.C.

The Phoenicians and Carthaginians stamped their coins with an image of a bluefin tuna.

In the first century A.D., Pliny the Elder prescribed various parts of the tuna as homeopathic remedies for human ailments.

In more recent history, Arabs, Spanish, and Italians have incorporated tuna not only into their diets, but also into their poetry, music and culture.

Sicily Tonnara

Like salmon, bluefin tuna are migratory fish that return annually to their original spawning grounds.

The Northern bluefin, which lives throughout the Atlantic, spawns either in the Gulf of Mexico or in the Mediterranean.

bluefin that spawns in the Mediterranean will spend its spring in the north along the Spanish and French coasts, then head southeast toward the warmer waters of North Africa and Greece, then return to the Atlantic Ocean after spawning season has completed.

A bluefin takes 5-8 years to reach maturity, after which it will return to the spawning ground where it was born. The Northern bluefin’s predictable spawning pattern is critical to the mattanza.

Sicily Tonnara

Mediterranean Bluefin Tuna Trancio in Olive Oil

We’re talking about Mediterranean Tuna (thunnus thynnus), the most prized species, also called Bluefin  Tuna (or, in Italian, “Tonno Rosso”).

It’s fished in the so called “rush” phase, that is, when it’s almost at the end of the long migration that takes it towards the warmest waters for mating.

It’s at this stage, and not after mating, that it is possible to glean the best and nutritionally richest tuna meats.

Ventresca is the most tender part of the tuna, it’s taken from the tuna’s belly.