Threatened waters: The sea at its limits
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.