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The Antique "Tonnare" (Tuna-Fishing Nets)

The ancient tuna-fishing nets of Pizzo, from “enchantment to and nostalgia”. In memory of the ancient tuna-fishing practice, using the “tonnara” (tuna-fishing net), we want to give you the chance to relive a moment of history and magic characteristic of a époque which, while now long-gone, remains firmly etched in the hearts of those who directly experienced it. To this day, through their tales, such individuals are able to transmit emotions into the hearts of their listeners.

And indeed, the impression one gets when speaking with the “tonnaroti” (tuna fishermen) is of being engaged in a pleasant, warm, informal conversation. And as they talk, their facial expressions and gestures express a genuine feeling of nostalgia and a sense of hope that one day their old tuna-fishing nets might be revived.

With its favorable climatic conditions, the Gulf of Sant’ Eufemia has always provided the ideal environment for the reproduction of the Tuna species Thunnus Thynnus. Since ancient times, moreover, the Calabrian coasts, especially Lamezia, have been especially fortunate in enjoying the greatest concentration of high-production tuna-fishing nets. From some historical documents, we discover that the most important tuna fishing-net is the one from Pizzo, “the Great”. Created all the way back in 1457, it is one of the very oldest. Two others were then created, and remained in existence until the 1960s.

The Tonnare were the backbone of the local industry, bringing together many business activities and a variety of interests. They were a large source of wealth, providing an important source of support for the local population thanks to the large amount of work that they generated, which was not limited to the fishing season but spread across the entire year.

In fact, during the winter period the fishing dock workers would be busy repairing the old nets, producing new ones, soldering and repairing the numerous fishing-boats, which were traditionally black in color so that they remained concealed from the sight of the tuna fish, maintaining the steel cables and anchors, and taking care of many other preparatory jobs.

The “fixed” fishing net was a fishing system imported by the Arabs in around the year 1000 and installed on the coasts of Calabria and Sicily. Consisting of a complex barrage of fishing nets immersed in the sea, it made it possible to trap tuna fish during their long passage along their “genetic migration”, in the spring/summer period.

The “Tonnara Grande” (the big fishing net) of Pizzo was placed in the sea in the first few days of April, but the actual fishing began in May/June with the capture of the so-called “tonno di corsa” (racing tuna) and in July/August, during their return journey after having deposited their eggs, with the capturing of the “tonno di ritorno” (returning tuna).

Placing the big fishing dock (tonnara grande) into the sea required a considerable amount of manpower (about sixty men), endless kilometers of net, hundreds of anchors, rocks and floating devices made of cork called “ballette”. All of the equipment was anchored in close proximity of the bank on a big rock, called the “chain”, from which the “pedal” extended into the open sea; this was an extremely resistant structure supporting the barrage net, capable of withstanding the strong sea currents and the stormy seas.

The system of rectangular nets, called the “isola” (island), was composed of a series of communicating rooms, five in all, through which the tuna-fish were guided towards the final room, which was positioned westward. This was called “the chamber of death”, being the only chamber which also had a netting system laid out on the ground. The main trap, from which there was no escape, would be triggered only after enough tuna-fish had entered the last chamber, and the lead fisherman, called the “rais”, had given the signal; this involved raising up the whole mobile net which, when lifted, acted as a door and hermetically sealed off the room.

The Tonnara was supported by a series of boats, the largest of which, called “U Caparrassu” (the leader of the fishermen’s boat), was the one from which all the orders came.

Moreover, it had the essential task of holding up the final part of the most important net of the tonnara (the “cannamu”), which, when correctly maneuvered, closed the door of the “chamber of death”. The boats of the tonnara had their own specific terminology according to the tasks they had to carry out. The tuna workers who gave the good news by shouting “toccau” when the fish got caught up in their fishing-lines were on the “Portanova” boat. This alert broke the silence, warning the crew and the lead fisherman waiting on the “U Scieri” boat, who, by standing up pre-announced the raising of the net and caught the attention of the men on guard in the “Colannitu” boat. The other boats, called “Musciari” and “Barcacce”, were used to move around within the tonnara and to bring the tuna-fish to shore.

Once the raising of the net had been announced, a few seconds of inactivity followed, which seemed to last an eternity.

Meanwhile, the fish continued on their fatal passage from the “small chamber” to the “chamber of death”, colliding with the fishing-lines held by the tuna fishermen on the “colannitu” boat. When the latter sensed the collision, they would give their confirmation by shouting out: “lever, lever, pull!” After checking the bulk and of quantity of tuna-fish, the lead fisherman would then give the order to hoist up the three0colored flag on the yard of the “u scieri” boat. Once the fish were trapped in the “chamber of death”, the so-called “slaughter of the tuna fish” took place; killing the tuna-fish was not seen as an act of cruelty, but rather one of necessity. The arduous work of the fishermen, which was a slow, relentless activity, continued at the rhythm of an ancient, monotonous song, “A levata”, in which the tuna fishermen would express their regret for what they were doing and beg forgiveness in advance. “To all the tuna-fish, we ask for forgiveness” marked the end of the song for the tuna fishermen from Pizzo.San Francesco di Paola

These traditional seafaring folk songs reflected the apprehension and expectant joys involved in waiting for the tuna fish, and perhaps even the illusion that their work could become fun, by sticking to the rhythm, in support of the soloist. Thanks to its favorable position, the San Francesco Convent was always the first to sight the signal launched by the “U Scieri” boat and would duly sound the feast bells, happily notifying the town of the abundant catch. For each good tunny massacre, the largest and best fish was offered to the Minimal Religious Order (Frati Minimi) of Pizzo – as a sign of the people of Pizzo’s great devotion toward San Francesco di Paola, the Patron Saint of fishermen, and the founder of the Minimal Order.

The disappearance of the tonnara marked the end of an activity which, throughout the dark centuries of the past, when poverty was everywhere, had represented an inexhaustible source of work and relative well-being in the town of Pizzo.

Bibliographical references: Franco Cortese – La Tonnara – taken from: : Le Tonnare di Pizzo – Publishing House Jaca Book (1991); Franco Cortese – Genesi e progenie della città di Pizzo – Publishing House Edizione Brenner - Cosenza; David Donato – La fine di un’epoca e di un’epopea! Taken from: Le Tonnare di Pizzo – Publishing House Jaca Book (1991); AA. VV. – Le Tonnare di Pizzo – Publishing House Jaca Book (1991).

Schema antiche tonnare


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