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‘A frenzy of bodies in the chamber of death’: Italian fishers fight to preserve an ancient tradition
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‘A frenzy of bodies in the chamber of death’: Italian fishers fight to preserve an ancient tradition


On a cloudy morning, a group of four individuals dive into a trap containing 49 large Atlantic bluefin tuna. They spend 30 minutes grappling with nets, tails, fins, and shimmering silver bodies before successfully hooking one of the fish through its gills.

Luigi Biggio shouts for his crew to pull from one of seven boats that make up the càmira dâ morti.

As 28 men look on, a majestic creature about three metres long, weighing 120kg (265lb), is raised from the water with a pulley. On the biggest boat, one man swiftly cuts its jugular and the vessel fills with blood.

Biggio, 57, runs a tonnara, Italy’s version of an ancient Mediterrranean fishing custom, which traps and harvests bluefin tuna in the intimate, gruesome struggle known in Italian as the mattanza (“killing”). He comes from a long line of raís (from the Arabic for chief), almost sacred leaders of the hunt – a mantle passed from father to son in designated families.

A man holds on to a rope as huge fish thrash the water in desperate attempts to escape the nets

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The process of harvesting tuna can be brutal and may appear savage, as the fish are hooked, stabbed, and lifted onto boats while dying. Despite this, experts in fisheries consider it to be a relatively sustainable means of catching bluefin tuna, a species that is heavily overfished worldwide.


Although they have positive qualities, Italy’s tonnare are at risk of disappearing. However, this is not because of a shortage of fish. While the tradition was in danger in the early 2000s due to a decline in tuna populations caused by excessive commercial fishing, the implementation of EU laws has aided in the recovery of tuna numbers over the last ten years.

“We proudly uphold a tradition that has been passed down for thousands of years,” states Biggio.

However, small-scale and traditional fishers in Italy have been unable to obtain permits under the quota system implemented by various governments. As a result, they are facing challenges in competing with larger fleets in the area.

During the 1920s, over 50 fishing groups utilized this method throughout Italy. However, Giuliano Greco and his family, who are the owners of the tonnara managed by Biggio, also hold a 50% stake in the only other active fishery of this kind.

A man sticks a big hook into a tuna fish.View image in fullscreen

According to Greco, who has taken over the family business at Sardinia’s Tonnara di Carloforte in the 1990s, the tonnara is the sole sustainable method for catching bluefin tuna. It does not interfere with the natural rhythms and biorhythms of the tuna population.

The tonnara nets, unlike contemporary seine-net and trawler fishing boats, specifically target adult tuna, leading to the fish’s return the following season. Additionally, this method supports numerous individuals in the local community.

The rapid catching of fish in a tonnara may result in less suffering compared to the slow suffocation they experience in trawler nets. However, the WWF, despite believing tonnara to be sustainable, cautioned against turning it into a spectacle.

A huge tuna hanging from a pulley

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A small number of boats in Italy hold the country’s tuna quotas. According to Fabio Micalizzi, a Sicilian activist, these boats catch tuna using Italian quotas and then sell the fish globally through Malta, with the exception of Italy. Micalizzi is advocating for more equitable distribution of these quotas.


The Atlantic bluefin tuna is one of the most valuable and desired fish in the world, with occasional sales reaching millions of dollars in Asia. With the increasing demand starting in the 1960s, fishing techniques like purse seining and longlining became widespread.

The most frequently used method in commercial fishing is purse-seine fishing. This involves using a cylindrical net to capture entire schools of fish and then closing the net at the bottom. Unfortunately, this method also leads to the most bycatch of undesired fish and other marine animals.

A man straddles a tuna the same size as him and has his hand under its gills

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Due to this, the number of bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean drastically decreased and reached critical levels in the early 2000s.

The EU developed a comprehensive plan in 2009 to combat overfishing. This included assigning fishing quotas to member states, restricting the number of fishing vessels, and enforcing a minimum weight of 30kg for caught tuna.

The bold strategy appeared to be successful. Tuna populations have recovered so well that, since 2014, big vessels are able to meet their annual tuna limit in just one day. This information comes from Alessandro Buzzi, who works for the WWF Mediterranean Marine Initiative.

He states that numerous newspapers continue to publish articles claiming that tuna is at risk of extinction. Fortunately, tuna are unable to read these nonsensical writings by humans, otherwise they may become anxious.

Cans of Carloforte tuna fish

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However, according to Greco, the quotas that have aided in the revival of fish populations have had negative effects on artisanal fishers. The EU’s plan was for member states to allocate quotas to local communities, but in Italy, this resulted in an uneven distribution favoring larger corporations.

Greco expresses his desire to take legal action against the Italian government for the losses incurred in recent years. He notes that in 2023, Spain allocated 24% of its fishing quotas to its tonnara, referred to as almadraba, while the Italian government only distributed 8%.


Due to the allocation of quotas, it is against the law for numerous small-scale fishermen in Italy to capture tuna. Even unintentionally catching tuna while fishing for other types of fish can result in penalties. According to Micalizzi in Sicily, tuna often ends up in their boats without intention, and yet they are labeled as murderers and thieves if they catch it as professional fishermen.

A black and white photo of a line of men holding the edge of a big net, with a few women standing behind themView image in fullscreen

In the year 2023, the Italian government reallocated a portion of 295 tonnes (equivalent to approximately 1,200 adult tuna) out of a total of 5,282 tonnes to smaller operators. However, Micalizzi argues that this amount is insufficient, particularly since the majority of the Italian quota is given to a select few seiners and longliners.

In Sicily, there have been numerous instances of individuals falling ill with scombroid poisoning after consuming poorly preserved tuna, which may have been caught without proper permits.

According to Antonio Di Natale, a UN expert on sustainable fisheries and former research director at ICCAT, the loser in these games is the smallest participant.

According to Di Natale, the tonnara, one of the oldest human industrial activities, should be safeguarded as a Unesco “intangible cultural heritage”. He also emphasizes its value as a sustainable fishing method due to its ease of control and high selectivity.

Currently, a significant portion of untamed tuna captured in Italy is gradually transported to Malta, Spain, and Croatia in sizable floating enclosures. Upon arrival, they are fed and nurtured for a maximum of six months in order to satisfy profitable markets like Japan, which highly values large and fatty fish.

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According to Buzzi, this practice is not considered illegal. However, the environmental impact of farming tuna in a cage cannot be compared to the impact of catching a wild tuna.


Before the harvest season, Greco’s team set free a group of 1,200 juvenile tuna from their nets as they were not yet large enough. “What other fishing method allows for such specific choice?” He questions. However, managing a tonnara is not a speedy or inexpensive task.

A large fishing vessel can quickly catch the entire year’s quota with a small crew, but preparing for a tonnara takes six months. The process involves creating multi-chambered nets that span 3km and are 40 metres deep. It takes two months to prepare the nets and two days to set them up at sea using 122 anchors.

According to Greco, he puts €1.5 million annually into the tonnara and has a staff of approximately 50 individuals. Unfortunately, in order to sustain one of Italy’s last two remaining tonnaras, he is forced to sell 75% of his captured fish to big tuna fishing companies.

Greco states that he does not approve of increasing the size of fish. He believes that this practice not only results in lower quality fish, but also causes pollution. He expresses that he would have banned the use of cages.

However, Greco remains optimistic. He welcomes tourists to visit his tonnara and learn about the traditional method – and the fact that they purchase his high-quality canned tuna for €25 each is a bonus.

A weather-beaten older man with a red scarf on his head talks to someone off camera

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A sun-burnt older man drenched with seawater and with red eyes looks at the camera as two young men behind him chatView image in fullscreen

On the open water, the fishing is complete and one of the fishermen requests a moment of quiet. “Let us give thanks for the holy sacrament. In the name of Saint Anthony, release them,” he declares. The rest of Biggio’s crew cheers in agreement. They bring back 49 massive fish, totaling six tonnes, to shore.

However, there is one boat that remains. On board, a few tired fishermen enjoy sipping on Ichnusa beer and soaking up the sun.

“I have noticed that over the past few years, the size of tuna has increased significantly,” reflects Stefano Sanna, who has been a tonnara fisherman for 25 years. “In that aspect, the quota has been effective.”

Tired men lie in a small boat, smoking and drinking beerView image in fullscreen

Source: theguardian.com