Swordfish hunting in the Straits of Messina –an ancient and noble battle has become very one-sided…

29 June, 2013

IMG_2641It’s a very narrow stretch of water that separates Sicily from the mainland – just over 3km  wide in parts – but one can’t help feeling that, at one time or another over the centuries, the whole world has passed through it  – and that each passing has left a subtle, but permanent, imprint on sea, sky and coast.    It’s a very beautiful part of the Mediterranean and one that tugs at the imagination.

Here in the Straits, two seas, the Tyrrhenian and the Ionian, meet, creating intense tidal currents and natural whirlpools, and supporting a unique and rich marine ecosystem.  It’s also an important migratory route for birds (birds of prey and storks making their way from Africa to Europe) and fish (tuna, swordfish, whales and dolphins moving from deep ocean waters to mate in the warmer shallower waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea).

At at this time of the year, from May to August,  you will see very strange looking boats moving up and down the coast.  Many of them.  They look like fine insects preying on the surface of the water.  These are the passarelle, boats specifically designed for hunting  swordfish, part of an ancient tradition.  The story of the swordfish hunt is fascinating and romantic  – but it’s also a sad story.

Swordfish photoPart of the fascination and romance of the hunt belongs to the swordfish itself.  It is known, appropriately, as ‘the Emperor of the Straits’, typically weighs about 100kg, is about two metres long, and can travel through the water at terrifying speeds of up to 100km/h.  One third of its length is taken up by a long, strong, sword-like protuberance extending from its upper jaw, so strong it can pierce the bottom of sturdily-built boats.  The swordfish spends much of its time in deep ocean waters, coming to the warmer shallower waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea only in the Spring to mate.  Here, male and female often travel in pairs – and, for good reason, that is how the fishermen like to find them.  The female is usually the larger of the two and it is she they target first.  They know that once she has been harpooned, the male will do everything he can to free her.  He will not leave the scene.  As a result, he becomes a very easy target.  The female, on the other hand, disappears at the first sign of danger.  It’s not at all surprising that popular Italian songs have been written about the male swordfish: it’s a romantic story.  And it’s not surprising that no songs have been written about the female.  The theory is that she is acting in response to an instinct to save her young.  It’s a nice theory, and a plausible one, but the truth is we have no way of knowing: it could simply be that she is less noble than the male – that fear gets the better of her.

passarella 3The method of hunting the swordfish using passerelle, the strange boats that seem to hover over the water up and down the coast, is really no more than an updated version of an ancient method, used by the Phoenicians who traded the length and breadth of the Mediterranean, hundreds of years before the time of Christ.

Whereas most other fish are not seen until they are caught, either by hook or by net, the swordfish hunt doesn’t begin until the fish is sighted.  It is much closer to an animal hunt on land than it is to what one normally thinks of as fishing.

The hunt begins with the  ‘spotter’, whose job it is to identify the presence of the swordfish, either from a direct sighting or a change in the surface of the water.  Originally, the spotter would have been situated on rocks or hills above the coast, relaying sighting information, either by shouting set, traditional phrases, or waving flags, to crews waiting in the boats below.

old way of fishingThe boats originally used were narrow, tapered, wooden rowing boats, painted black underneath so as not to be visible to the fish.  They were manned by a crew of six: four rowers, a spotter and a harpoonist.  In the centre of the boat there was a wooden pole or mast , about 3.5 metres high, with foot and arm rests.  From the top of the mast. the spotter would guide the rowers to the prey – which, from that height, would be visible for only about 30 metres.  As he did so, he would  be giving rythm to the strokes of the rowers by loud and insistent chanting.  Meanwhile, at the  the bow, the harpooner would be standing ready for action.

Once harpooned, the fish  would be given a lot of line and, with it, a temporary illusion of freedom.   Finally, weakened from the struggle and loss of blood, it would be hauled into the boat.  There, again following an ancient tradition, one of the fishermen  would make four crosses with his fingernail just above the eye of the fish, and cut out the block of flesh surrounding the harpoon wound and this would be given to the harpoonist.

In recent years, this wooden boat has morphed into a big hunting machine, the  passarella, powered by a diesel motor.   While in principle the method hasn’t changed, it is obviously now much more sophisticated.   At the centre of the boat  there is a large metal frame or tower, usually about 30 metres high, with an iron cage at the top.  The spotter in these boats has two roles: he both sights the fish and pilots the boat, making the chase much more accurate and effective.  Extending 45 metres out from the front of the boat is another long, light iron bridge, known as the passarella; here, the harpooner takes his position.  Because he is able to position himself directly above the fish, it is much easier than it used to be for him to aim the harpoon accurately –  also, because the passarella extends so far from the boat, the fish does not hear the motor and is caught unawares.

*          *          *          *

The sight of the passarelle making their way up and down this ancient coastline is captivating: you really do feel you are witnessing an ancient, but living, tradition.  And to some extent you are, but only some aspects of the ancient tradition have remained.  For centuries the hunt of the swordfish was a duel, with man and animal fairly evenly matched.  Even having developed special hunting methods and boats, the fishermen very often returned home empty-handed.  Gradually, over the centuries that has changed.   The development of the sophisticated passarelle would probably have been enough, but there has also been the introduction of  indiscriminate fishing with longlines and nets.  And, inevitably, the fishermen themselves have changed.  Many locals will tell you that their mentality is now commercial and entrepreneurial, that they no longer have the respect for the sea that their fathers and grandfathers had.  Today they fish up and down the coast catching what they can, without regard for the sea’s capacity to regenerate.

It seems the swordfish doesn’t stand much chance any more.

One Response to “Swordfish hunting in the Straits of Messina –an ancient and noble battle has become very one-sided…”

  1. Sally Says:

    Fascinating – and something I will think about next time I see Swordfish on the menu …

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