Threatened waters: The sea at its limits

  • The Mediterranean Sea, from Sicily, Aug. 22, 2015.
  • The Portrait of Andrea Doria in the guise of Neptune, as seen at the Pianocoteca di Brera, or the Brera Art Gallery, the main public gallery for paintings in Milan, Italy. Andrea Doria was a celebrated admiral from Genoa, who was also the ruler of the city-state in the mid-16th century, and chose to be depicted nude, as Neptune, the Roman god of water and the sea. 
  • The Grotta del Genovese, a cave along the north-east coast of Italy’s enchanted Levanzo island, is lined with ancient etchings of tuna and dolphin. The oldest images are believed to be 11,000 years old. 
  • On the left, two fishermen load fish on board a “Felucca Boat,” a special boat used specifically for fishing swordfish. The boat has a tower from which the fish are sighted, and a bridge at the bow that is 20 meters long. This allows the angler to position himself over the fish, which is skewered with a pitchfork and left to tire out before being uploaded on board. Right, a drawing depicts a “Felucca Boat.”
  • A painting by the famous artist Enzo Di Franco about “Mattanza,” the complex but quaint system of small nets used to herd tuna in the past. The last Mattanza was held in Siciliy in 2007.
  • Two fishermen select fish after their catch on Aug. 26, 2015, south of Sicily.
  • A fish caught in a net as fisherman retrieve networks in Scoglitti, Sicily, Aug. 29, 2015.
  • A fisherman and a fishmonger negotiate the price of fish in Sciacca, Sicily. The price of fish from the time the fisherman sells to the time it reaches the table can multiply 25 times.
  • A man cleans fish that have just arrived from the port in Catania, Sicily, in August. The fish market in Catania is the oldest in Europe, and has the highest quality of fish in Italy. But Italy’s local markets are showing signs of wear, hammered by habitat loss, climate change, and overfishing.
  • An ancient medieval map in the archaeology library at the University of Catania depicts the Mediterranean Sea, left. On the right, a dish called “Framework Anchovy” is made using an ancient technique of fishing that uses ice to create a natural gelatin, prepared in the prestigious Madia Pino Cuttaia restaurant in Licata, Sicily. 
  • A fish auction takes place in the harbor in Mazara del Vallo, Sicily.
  • An aerial view of the Mediterranean Sea. Fishing culture along the coasts of Italy and its islands, where some of the planet’s last wild caught protein has been pushed to its biological limits, is under threat. For centuries these waters nourished those who made their home along the shore. 
  • Fisherman take a rest after a day of work in Sciacca harbour, Sicily.
  • The lighthouse of the old fishing village of Porto Palo, left, where the primary industry was tuna fishing, packing and exporting, which it has done for centuries. On the right, tails and swords hang to dry in Catania, the oldest fish market in Europe, with the highest quality of fish.
  • Two fishermen select fish from their catch, on the open sea south of Sicily, Aug. 26, 2015.
  • Wooden boxes are stowed on the stern of a ship in Sciacca harbor in Sicily, left. Right, a picture made at the Genova aquarium on Sept. 9, 2015.
  • A man cleans fish that have just arrived from the port. The Catania fish market is the oldest on the continent, a bustling hive of buyers and sellers. Most of the action is wholesale: restaurant owners, and distributors, the middle links between a fishing boat and a dinner plate. But the region is changing. 
  • The head of a swordfish at the Catania fish market, the oldest in Europe.
  • Genova’s aquarium, left, where the fish are alive and still swimming, but as more and more species decline in the wild, the tanks may be the only place they still roam. On the right, the statue of Neptune at the port of Messina.
  • A fisherman casts his line in Catania Harbor, Aug. 31, 2015. 
  • Workers arrange anchovies one by one in jars at the company Scalia in Sciacca, Sicily. The two most ancient methods used to preserve fish are salt, and in oil. On the right, the famous “octopus on the rock” dish at the prestigious Madia Pino Cuttaia restaurant in Licata, Sicily.
  • For centuries the waters of the Mediterranean nourished those who made their home along the shore. But while demand has grown, there are fewer and fewer fish to catch. Here a fisherman retrieves his networks of nets in Scoglitti, Sicily, Aug. 29, 2015.
  • Seagulls follow a trawler on the open sea south of Sicily, hoping for the undesirable fish that fishermen throw back into the water, left. On the right, a piece of swordfish at the oldest fish market in Europe in Catania, Sicily.
  • A fisherman rests on a boat in the open sea south of Sicily. In recent years, Italy’s local market has shown signs of wear, hammered by a global trifecta that includes habitat loss, climate change, and overfishing.

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Human activity has killed off more than 500 different species on land, from the Atlas Bear to the Western black rhinoceros. Now that same carnage may be coming to the oceans. And perhaps nowhere is the damage more keenly felt than in the azure waters of the Mediterranean Sea. 

This summer and fall, the photographer Gabriele Micalizzi documented the threatened fishing culture along the coasts of Italy and its islands, where some of the planet’s last wild caught protein have been pushed to their biological limits. For centuries these waters nourished those who made their home along the shore.  

But in recent decades demand has grown, spreading inland and upward, a local sign of a global shift. This year the average person on Earth will eat about twice as much fish as they did in 1970, a full 42 pounds a year. That’s the equivalent of about 100 more fish dinners per person, and millions of extra tons plucked from the ocean or “farmed” with the benefit of ocean-caught feeder fish.

This week in Bonn, Germany more than 130 nations are debating a plan to respond to global warming, an effort to lighten humankind’s footprint on the planet. While much is at stake for every country, Micalizzi’s photographs offer a portrait of the lives and livelihoods in the balance in one. 

His work addresses the fact that there are fewer and fewer wild fish to catch. For perhaps the first time since humankind reached into the water, the ocean’s total edible yield is flat or falling. A full third of the ocean’s edible life is in a state of human-caused collapse, according to the United Nations, which estimates that nine out of 10 fishing grounds worldwide are maxed out or worse. 

Italy’s local market shows signs of wear, too, hammered by a global trifecta that includes habitat loss, climate change, and overfishing. In the strait of Messina, a fruitful passage between the eastern pinch of Sicily and the western edge of Calabria, at least one old fishing boat still uses a trident to haul in its catch. Others used to herd tuna with a complex but quaint system of small nets. It was called “Mattanza.”

But modern industrial fishing is rarely so small scale. The boats are practically naval in size and power, dragging vast nets as long and as wide as football fields. With onboard factories and freezers, they can process hundreds of tons of fish a day, and stay out on the water for months.

The Italian government has tried to regulate the fishing industry, tracking the hunt with the help of remote sensors, which reveal when a fishing boat is in an area where it should not be active. Back in port, the government also requires detailed catch reports, the basis for scientifically-set catch quotas designed to prevent plundering. 

Most fishing companies see the need to tell the truth and maintain a healthy ocean. But cheating persists. Some boats may lie about the size of their catch. Others may lie about where they caught it. Meanwhile, the fishing goes on as it has for millennia. 

The Grotta del Genovese, a cave along the north-east coast of Italy’s enchanted Levanzo island, is lined with ancient etchings of tuna and dolphin. The oldest images are believed to be 11,000 years old. But a more modern update would have to include drawings of jellyfish or more tropical fare, the visible signs of a warmer, more acidic ocean. 

On shore, the Catania fish market is the oldest on the continent, a bustling hive of buyers and sellers. Most of the action is wholesale: restaurant owners and distributors, the middle links between a fishing boat and a dinner plate. But the region is changing. 

On the island of Favignana, there is a factory called Florio, once the largest tuna processing plant in Europe. The shouts of workers are gone, however, replaced by the scuffling feet of tourists. The site is a museum, a frozen image of the past. 

Genova’s aquarium is remarkably similar. The fish are alive and still swimming, but as more and more species decline in the wild, the tanks may be the only place they still roam.

For more feature photography, go to msnbc.com/photography

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