Saturday, May 1, 2010

“La Mattanza” - Traditional Tuna Massacre

For Sicilian gourmets, May and June are Tuna Heaven, but this tasty fish reaches their plates via a very brutal method...
From 29 May-3 June, the usually tranquil Egadi Islands west of Sicily, see an ancient massacre – la mattanza (happening since the 9th.century, and possibly originating in the Phoenician or Carthaginian era).
Schools of blue fin tuna pass through the Mediterranean annually to the Atlantic. These fish average 200kg+ but can reach an enormous 800kg. Local fishermen guide them via a series of nets into a final trap, where they wait in their boats, plunging spear-like weapons again and again into the frantic tuna. The sea boils with blood as dozens of tuna are captured. The bloodied water and thrashing fish create the impression of cruelty, and draws parallels with the Faroe Islands pilot whale massacres. And in Italian the term mattanza is a synonym for "massacre".
Tuna take at least 10 years to reach sexual maturity, so the species is vulnerable to overfishing. Yet the locals only take dozens each time... some for domestic consumption, the rest sold to the Japanese market – and therein lies the problem.
Tuna are known as 'floating goldmines': in Japan a single fish can fetch £20,000 / US$30,000! There's a huge demand owing to the booming trade in top-grade sushi, so industrial fishing now hammers the tuna schools long before they reach coastal areas. State-of-the-art fleets (known as purse-seiners, due to the shape of the nets trailing for miles behind them) operate in large packs, complete with spotter planes. Encircling a school of tuna (3000 at a time!) they draw the net into an oversized purse and tow it to just offshore. There, tuna are fattened in giant floating pens, increasing their weight by up to 25%, before being killed and flown on ice to Japan within 48 hours.
International rules set the total annual Mediterranean catch at 15,000 tonnes... but due to the purse-seiners' greed, it's more than double that – and many governments ignore the poaching. If these rules are not enforced, the tuna will be destroyed. Yet last March, the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) could not agree on a complete trade ban to let the fish recover. Japan, which consumes 80% of the species, vowed to ignore any ban anyway!
Again - as with whaling (and the consumption of exotic rare animal parts supposedly for virility) - Japan won't accept economic reality, world opinion or plain common sense. A hundred years ago, there were dozens of small traditional Sicilian tuna canneries: now only a few remain. Conservationists say traditional methods like la mattanza are sustainable but modern fishing is wiping out stocks: populations have fallen 85% since the industrial fishing era began. Just how long la mattanza and the bluefin tuna survive is debatable, as Japanese demand is insatiable.
Here's a link to an interesting CBS 60 Minutes programme on the subject: [The King Of Sushi in Trouble].
...meanwhile today (May 1st.), Sea Shepherd’s Steve Irwin sails to the Mediterranean to begin its 2010 Tuna Defence Campaign: Operation Blue Rage, aiming to stop a variety of criminal activities threatening the extinction of bluefin tuna.

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