For centuries, on the butterfly-shaped island of Favignana in the Egadi archipelago off the coast of Sicily, a tight-knit society of fishermen known as tonnaroti, have been catching the best tuna in the world in an annual ritual called Mattanza. Now, families and restaurants on the island must resort to frozen tuna imported from Mexico. One man, Salvatore Spataro, the Raìs – appointed leader of the fisherman – is challenging the global fishing industry to bring their tuna back.
Bluefin tuna was in danger of going extinct around the world, with its stock decreasing dramatically due to pollution, climate change and, by far the biggest factor, overfishing. The dynamics that brought us to this point are consequences of a globalized food supply chain, with the international commerce of tuna providing a good example of its paradoxes. The lion’s share of tuna consumed in Europe is imported from countries outside Europe. There is a local supply of bluefin tuna in the waters of the Mediterranean, but a large share of that bluefin tuna is exported to countries outside Europe, especially Japan, where the highest-grade tuna sells for record prices.
What is tragically ironic in this context, is that Japan’s love for fatty tuna is not inherent to their millenary traditions. In fact, it was only a few decades ago that the Japanese would describe this fish as gezakana, or “cheap, trash fish”, due to its bloody and metallic taste. In order to make that unwanted taste go away, the tuna was left to ferment for four days, which led to its nickname shibi, from the Japanese character for “four”, which is also considered an unlucky number.
It wasn’t until the 1920’s and later in the rising days of global commerce and the Japanese export economy in the 70’s, that tuna became more popular. Together with the westernization of Japan’spost WWII diet, which began to include more fat and red meat, there was a deliberate, corporate decision at play: cargo planes full of Japanese products (mostly electronics) were coming back empty. These corporations needed a solution, which they found in bluefin tuna. It was the perfect item for the job: cheap to buy abroad because of their oversupply, large, delicate, and quickly perishable so that it could only be transported by plane and already rising in popularity in Japan. The first important auction of Canadian bluefin tuna was held at Tsukiji market on August 14, 1972. This day was henceforth known as “the day of the flying fish.” Two summers later, more than 90 percent of outgoing cargo on Japan Airlines flights from Canada was Tokyo-bound bluefin. Japan Airlines had “invented the modern tuna economy,” as Sasha Issenberg writes in The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy.
This butterfly-effect story takes us back to the little butterfly-shaped island in the Mediterranean, Favignana. In 2003, Mediterranean countries signed a declaration that laid the foundations for limiting large-scale tuna fishing and farming. EU members reduced their fleets to ensure sustainable fishing and an EU-wide ban was put in place in 2007. Thanks to this cooperative effort and a rigorous plan laid out by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), the bluefin tuna stock has been partially restored.
Over ten years after these strict measures, all that’s left of Favignana’s tonnara (an ancient system of tuna-entrapping nets assembled every year since the times of the Phoenicians) is the fish canning facility turned museum, the decaying black wooden boats (muciare), and a falling-apart structure called Camperia (the docks that saw years of triumphant tonnaroti, or “tuna fishermen”, return with their hard-earned, bloody bounty). What was once the pride of the local food industry which fed the families of the village, has been eaten up by global forces beyond the scope of the fishermen’s humble lives. High-tech fishing with radars, large quantities of tuna trawled to fish farms for fattening, almost all of it to be exported abroad. These activities brought the tuna closer to extinction and these anachronistic fishermen closer to hanging up their tools and repurposing their boats for tourism.
But there is hope in the eyes of the Raìs, and the scarred hands of his men are hard at work, racing against time to bring their tradition back. The tuna is repopulating their seas and they are only hoping that there will be enough scraps for the tonnara’s rebirth.
They are hopeful the government will assign a large enough quota for them to at least break even, and maybe kickstart a new wave of gastro-cultural tourism. This will bridge the gap between the island’s old fishing economy, which has been crushed to death by the modern global fishing industry, and the new reliance on the kind of tourism that turned Favignana into a resort for yachts and a party island in the summer, yet deserted in the winter.
Is the survival of local traditions worth fighting for in today’s world? This, alongside the sustainability of fishing and tourism in marine protected areas, environmental issues such as plastic pollution, and the importance of culinary culture on a small island’s microcosm, are some of the themes in the documentary The Last Raìs of Favignana, which follows the lives touched by the last traditional catch of this majestic fish, the tonno rosso, as they call it in Favignana.
Words and photography by Marco Massa