From Crown to Cage: The Changing Face of the Tuna Trap Fishery in Sardgena

For the last month, I have been immersed in a world of traditional bluefin tuna traps in three small towns in the Southwest corner of Sardegna (Sardinia): Carloforte, Portoscuso, and Porto Paglia. In each of these towns you cannot go far without seeing or hearing some sort of reference to bluefin tuna.  Whether it is a restaurant advertising lunchtime specials of three different bluefin tuna dishes, the promenade lined with murals of the traditional tuna harvest, or the old tonnarrotti (fishermen) sitting in the piazza and sharing war-stories from long ago.  In any case, tonno (tuna) is on your mind, and likely in your belly.

2013, a bluefin tuna being landed at La Punta after the only mattanza this year. Photo credit: Shannon Cosentino-Roush
A bluefin tuna being landed at La Punta after the only mattanza this year (2013). Photo credit: Shannon Cosentino-Roush

This comes as no surprise in an area that has been built on the backs of traditional bluefin tuna traps, starting from the middle of the 15th century when the Spanish crown sent prisoners to harvest the lucrative tuna.  From then on, the towns have been defined by tuna; their populations composed of seasonal workers who built the traps, harvested the tuna, and processed it for distribution and consumption.  As the fishery developed and changed, so did the towns, going from salting, to barreling, to canning the tuna for distribution around Italy and later Europe and the world.  In 1861, the cannery as is stands today was completed in Carloforte, at a location referred to as La Punta, processing tuna from the surrounding area.

A historical bluefin tuna landing at La Punta. Photo credit: The archives of the local council of Carloforte
A historical bluefin tuna landing at La Punta. Photo credit: The archives of the local council of Carloforte

Throughout the season, the long wooden boats arrived at La Punta with their hulls full of freshly harvested tuna, the result of the cultural mattanza.  As the mattanza was the only way to harvest the tuna from the trap, each season was characterized by many mattanzas, the tonnarrotti  raising the nets and killing the tuna, one-by-one, by hand.  As the boats pulled up to shore, crowds of people waited to assist with the offloading and lengthy processing operations.  This included everything from hauling the tuna to the facility, gutting it, and storing it for the canning process.  Each tuna was cut by hand, the various parts saved to be consumed in different ways, leaving nothing wasted.  The jaw was grilled, the heart collected for drying, the ovaries cured and turned into a delicacy called bottarga.  The meat of the tuna itself also was cut into small pieces by hand in order to fit the size of the cans.

This process was not only labor intensive, it also required very specialized skills and experience.   For a small area, it is no wonder that the traditional tuna trap and the bluefin tuna became such a prominent piece of the local culture.  It not only provided work, it established a sense of community, local identity, and food culture.

Over the years, the tradition of the trap, the mattanza, the tuna products, and the cannery continued to define the local culture.   The men, young and old, worked at the tonnara, pulling nets and landing tuna.  The local market absorbed some of the fish, supporting a diet rich in tuna whether grilled, boiled, or preserved.  The cannery churned out cans that could be found in local supermarkets around town, prominently displaying the traditional logo of the Carloforte/Portoscuso tonnara.

A historical bluefin tuna landing at Isola Piana. Photo credit: The archives of the local council of Carloforte

As the market for bluefin tuna expanded globally, especially with the increased demand in Japan, some things at the tonnara began to change.  After being landed at La Punta, the tuna from the mattanza was prepared for shipment to Japan.  While the cannery still produced cans, the sale of tuna to Japan became an important part of the tonnaras business.  Yet, when the tuna no longer commanded such a high price in the Japanese market and the yen dropped in value, the business model changed again.

Throughout this time, the technology used to fish for bluefin tuna also progressed rapidly, with more and more advanced methods being used.  These changes heavily affected the fishery, from the quantity of tuna found, to the market, and the regulations.  However, despite these changes in the tuna business, the traditions in Sardegna remained and when I arrived to Portoscuso and Carloforte last year, I still found a strong local tuna culture.  There still were tonnaras placed in the sea, tuna still was the most popular thing on the menu, including traditional products like bottarga, and the locally produced cans still held a place on the shelves.

Yet, it was clear that again change was in the air.  Instead of the many mattanzas that characterized the past, the majority of the tuna were being sold live, destined for a tuna farm in Malta.  It was a question mark if there even would be a mattanza or if there would be enough tuna to run the cannery.

So far my experiences this year tell a similar story: live, caged tuna destined for Malta, a lone mattanza, and a cannery that won’t be producing cans.  These changes reflect the difficult balance of maintaining a cultural, traditional, and sustainable fishery, all while staying in business in a fluctuating and dynamic market and world.



, , ,

Meet the Author
Shannon Cosentino-Roush earned a B.S. in Political Science with a minor in Environmental Studies, a Master’s of Environmental Law and Policy, and a J.D. She is passionate about marine conservation and policy, specifically in relation to international fisheries. She has both national and international fisheries policy experience, working in the past with the US government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the UN FAO, the International Monitoring, Control, and Surveillance (IMCS) Network, and the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC). Shannon believes that the key to sustainable management of our fisheries for the future benefit of all requires cooperation and collaboration between all stakeholders from governments to NGOs and industry alike. With the goal of turning this vision into a reality, she has sought opportunities to gain increased field and industry experience in the Mediterranean, particularly related to tuna, so that she can better serve in the field of sustainable fisheries policy in the future. Shannon’s most recent blog recounts some of her experiences at a traditional tuna trap in Sardegna.