In the fight against bottom trawling, an incredibly destructive fishing practice that critics liken to using a bulldozer and a vacuum cleaner on the ocean floor, 62-year-old Italian fisher Paolo Fanciulli has never been shy of using radical tactics.
When his father fished off the coast at Talamone, a picturesque small port town perched on a cliff less than two hours’ drive from Rome, the sea used to be brimming with life and his nets would come back full. Sitting under the awning on the ‘Sirena,’ Fanciulli’s blue and white wooden fishing boat, while his hands work constantly at his nets, he tells me as a teenager, he would join his father here in this same bay, describing the sea back then as a “paradise.”
Looking at its glassy rich blue waters, with the sunlight shimmering off the surface, and the rocky coastline and forested hills of the Maremma Natural Park in the distance, it’s hard not to see it as that today. But Fanciulli, dressed in mustard yellow fishing waders, shakes his head and forefinger wildly, and, through a translator who is already struggling to keep up, says it’s nothing compared to what it was.
By the late 1980s, Fanciulli began to notice that fish stocks in the bay were dwindling due to the impact of illegal bottom trawlers in the region. Trawling is forbidden within three miles of the Italian coastline, though it’s difficult to police – especially at night. Bottom trawlers use weighted nets that drop down to the ocean floor and are then dragged along, catching everything in their path while destroying sensitive habitats such as seagrass meadows.
“Bottom trawling is indiscriminate,” Dan Crockett, director of Ocean and Climate at the marine conservation organisation the Blue Marine Foundation, tells me. “When trawlers are at work, they have no idea what marine life and bycatch [the fish they don’t want and therefore discard] they’re destroying. They don’t know if they’re destroying something incredibly rare or endangered. It’s a genuine tragedy of the commons.”
Fanciulli tried to report the problem, writing tirades in local and national newspapers, to no avail, so he decided to up the ante. In 1990, he mobilised hundreds of fishers and blockaded Santo Stefano, a local commercial fishing port, but the boats kept coming. He attacked the trawlers at night with his dingy and fishing mallet. He impersonated the coast guard by using sirens and a large light to scare the boats away. He even used barbed wire and underwater explosions, risking his life on countless occasions and once being arrested – though no charges were made. Despite the growing media interest in his plight and support from Greenpeace and WWF, the illegal trawlers continued to plunder Talamone’s coastline.
In 2006, the regional government of Tuscany finally agreed to let him place some large concrete blocks into the sea to deter the trawlers and provided some funding for the project. To be truly effective, Fanciulli felt he needed more blocks, closer together, but then suddenly the government funding stopped, which he is convinced was due to mafia pressure.
Not dissuaded and to capitalise on the media attention, Fanciulli struck upon the idea of Pescaturismo or ‘fishing tourism,’ inviting guests to come out on his boat to watch him fish responsibly while hearing about the destruction wreaked by illegal trawlers – a morning trip I’m making with him today. The move also helped fund more concrete blocks. He put 800 into the sea, which he says has prevented 90% of illegal trawling in the area. But as his tourism business blossomed, he wondered if it might be better to drop sculptures into the bay, crafted by prominent artists, creating an underwater museum that would in turn bring more attention to the cause.
The concept, a kind of eco-interventionist art, got a lift in 2013 when he met Franco Barattini, the owner of the Carrara quarry where Michelangelo used to source the white marble for his sculptures, and asked him if he could donate any blocks to be turned into sculptures; Fanciulli was offered 100. “The artistic tradition really helped me with my work,” he says. In 2015 Casa dei Pesci or ‘the house of the fishes’ was born, including works from the British sculptor Emily Young.
Today, there are 19 underwater sculptures tracking the coast of Talamone, with 20 graffitied marble blocks at nearby Alberese beach in the Maremma National Park. Fanciulli plans to add five more sculptures this summer and I got to admire the new batch in a fragrant olive grove at a nearby hotel, where young artists from Italy, Serbia and Turkey had been chipping away at the giant slabs of marble for several weeks.
Instead of payment the artists are given a dinner at Fanciulli’s home with fish caught from the bay of Talamone. The new sculptures include: ‘The Big Dive’ by Anna Torre, in which a female figure is bent over mid-dive to remind us of the harmonious relationship humans can have with the sea, Wimar Van Ommen’s ‘Fragment of light’ where huge penetrating eyes keep watch for illegal trawlers above and the ‘Dream of a fisherman’ in which Claudia Zanaga has chiselled a Buddha-like figure cuddling a fish to represent a fisherman who embraces the fish, inspired by Fanciulli.
The sculptures that are already submerged sit at around seven-eight metres deep and are already covered in plant life and havens for fish. The sculptures are easily seen by scuba divers and on calm days snorkelers, though I’ve arrived after some recent storms, so the visibility isn’t quite good enough to see the sculptures while I’m snorkelling.
I do see several shoals of silvery fish though, big, and small, and a beautiful octopus hiding in a ridge. Illegal octopus fishing is common here and Fanciulli tells me lawyer activists from the marine conservation charity Sea Shepherd have been patrolling the bay this week in an effort to thwart the poachers.
I also witness a rich and healthy seagrass meadow of Posidonia oceania, or ‘Neptune grass,’ bending in the currents like a field of crops in a breeze. Where I live in Brighton, there’s usually too much sediment from dredging to see the bottom but on the rare clear water days it looks more like the surface of a barren moon than anything as alive as this.
“Posidonia is an example of a species habitat that is absolutely destroyed by bottom trawling,” says Crockett of the Blue Marine Foundation. “You can see this from the visual evidence of the tracks that trawlers leave through Posidonia bedding.”
He tells me it’s especially wrong-headed because Posidonia is one of the longest living species on earth, with some beds lasting for thousands of years, constantly sequestering and storing huge amounts of carbon. “It’s one of the most efficient carbon sequestering species on the planet,” he says. “It also cleans the water, provides a nursery habitat for countless different species of fish, including the sort of fish that small scale fishermen can land in coastal communities like Talamone.”
When I ask how much bottom trawling has affected the seabed around the UK coastline, Crockett cites the research of Callum Roberts, a Professor of Marine Conservation at the University of Exeter, who has looked into the history of bottom trawling, the first recorded incidence of which was in 1376.
“Professor Roberts says we only understand the environment we see,” he explains. “We don’t know how much we’ve lost, but the intense effort that has gone into trawling over hundreds of years means we see a marine environment that is radically different to how it was. We see perhaps 5% of the life that was once there.” Even Brighton used to have rich kelp forests, which have been all but destroyed by trawling, though the Sussex Kelp Recovery Project is trying to bring them back.
Crockett’s father grew up fishing in Aldborough, a coastal village in Norfolk, when there were 55 different fishing boats going out to sea. “Now there are just two, because the marine environment there has shifted to such an extent there is not enough fish stock to support a local fishing industry. I respect everyone’s right to make a living from the sea but that’s not what has happened [with bottom trawling],” he says, pointing out that trawlers often receive government subsidies to make them viable. “This is the pursuit of profit, and it radically affects the ability of small-scale fishermen to have a sustainable livelihood.”
Bottom trawlers can be huge. The Margiris is an 180 metre trawler, nicknamed the ‘Death Star’, capable of catching hundreds of thousands of tonnes of fish at a time. It’s been banned in Australia since 2013 but is yet to be outlawed in British or European waters. “It’s an astonishing thing to have permitted,” says Crockett.
As campaigns to ban or better police bottom trawling in near shore waters and marine protected areas in the UK and EU gather pace (bottom trawling was banned at Dogger Bank in the North Sea last year), so too does the opposition from the trawling industry. Over 2.5 million hours of bottom trawling took place in Europe’s “protected” areas in 2020, says Nicolas Fournier, Campaign Director of Habitat Protection, at the environmental non-profit Oceana.
“The EU Ocean Action Plan should ban bottom trawling in marine protected areas by 2030 but the trawling industry has mobilised [against this law] through the European Bottom Fisheries Alliance [EBFA], which was created by Europeche, the powerful European fishing industry lobby,” Fournier explains.
“EBFA essentially tries to defend the most environmentally harmful fishing methods through spreading misleading information, biased science, and scaremongering – mainly about job loss and economic uncertainty,” he continues, adding it’s a well-known tactic used by many unscrupulous lobbies before them to defend their short-term business models at all costs.
“The science is clear about the impacts of bottom trawling and its impacts on the seabed, marine species. Whether they like it or not, bottom trawling fleets will have to adapt – so they would be better off anticipating this than being in denial.”
Crockett says the problem is similar in the UK, with the fishing lobby having too much sway over government policy. “The government needs to realise that the fishing industry, despite being a vocal minority, shouldn’t be allowed to call the shots. It’s like letting the poacher look after the woods,” he says. “The UK government claims to be a conservation leader but it makes a mockery of their big words at international conferences when they allow bottom trawling in marine protected areas."
I ask if there’s a way for consumers to avoid bottom trawled fish? “Buying straight from low impact small-scale fishermen is undeniably the most responsible way, other than going out to sea and catching the fish yourself,” he says, but he also urges supermarkets to act on the issue and ensure that the fish they purchase is as sustainable as possible.
Like other campaigners, Fournier fears that unlike high profile and often highly visible campaigns like sewage, bottom trawling is difficult to shine a spotlight on. “It’s out of sight, out of mind,” he says, with trawlers wreaking havoc in places none of us will ever see.
That’s why Fanciulli’s efforts are so important. “I wanted people to know what was happening at sea,” Fournier says. “What you’re seeing here with trawling is happening worldwide.”
Once the new sculptures are in, Fanciulli wants to expand the protected area further and work on a campaign to reverse octopus decline in the bay. How does he find the energy to keep going? “My heart, the children, the nature…” he says, looking at me as if I surely must understand.
Imagining the rich marine ecosystem that once lay beneath the ‘Sirena’ and which, thanks to his actions, is going some way to being restored to its former glory, I really do.
Sam Haddad is a freelance writer who edits the newsletter Climate & Board Sports.