Cap. 1. 2 The history of fisheries in the Mediterranean

De Nicolò M. L.


The study of fishery activities in the first centuries of modern era enables to reconstruct a specific history of the Mediterranean. in which the 16th century was a transition time from old to new fishing methods. The sources examined provide a fairly complete picture of the world of marine fisheries, in which, together with fishing methods practised ab immemorabili, new techniques were being tested. These new techniques were to have a significant effect on fish production, which was still almost exclusively based on the exploitation of ponds, coastal lagoons and marshes. The continuity of the fishing systems that were used in the ancient world is particularly evident, above all in coastal settlements that developed near coastal lagoons and ponds where, due to the presence of salt water and suitable biological conditions for fish reproduction, highly ingenious devices had been developed and perfected to catch various species of fish, and continued to be used.

Coastal lagoons created a symbiotic relationship between fish and salt that proved very important for fish production and trade since salting was also one of the most reliable ancient preservation methods. The description of these habitats, which were genuine fish reserves distributed along the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea is vividly presented in the documentation we possess, which indicates the main fishing areas, the natural sites best suited to provide shelter for the various species or the right conditions for biological replenishment and the growth of juveniles, as well as the fish production centres and trade flows for preserved fish. The fish reserves along the Mediterranean coastline are always referred to as “fishponds”, which should not be confused with the artificial fishponds connected with farms, which are documented in medieval and modern agronomical treatises. “Marine” fishponds are actually natural refuges shaped by the geomorphology of the Mediterranean coastline, such as those that can be seen, for example, along the coast of Istria. Here - according to a ministerial report from 1929 - the name ‘fishponds’ refers to “the bays, sea coves and calmer gulf and channel areas where, due to favourable conditions in terms of food and shelter, certain quantities of adult fish are known to congregate, uniting in a compact mass during the breeding period to defend themselves from pursuing predators and thereby ensure the propagation of the species”. The activity of fishermen is therefore concentrated in this environment at least until the 17th century, using tools that had been developed in antiquity (set lines, troll lines, brancaruole) to which fishing with hooks (long lines) further offshore was added. To these methods the use of the dragnet or seine net, i.e. trawl fishing, was added, still in use until recent times, for example in the Dalmatian islands, as well as in lagoon waters and along sandy coastlines. In terms of fishery practices, up to the 16th century the Mediterranean Sea has all the characteristics of an ancient sea in which trading activities in schienali, morone and caviari, i.e. processed products derived from sturgeon fishing, are still active, although in a period of decline, being transported via Constantinople from the Black Sea to the Gulf of Venice. Several references describe to the preservation systems used in Dalmatia, particularly for oily fish, and to the production and trade of salted fish from Dalmatia and Brulle (the Nile Delta), as well as to significant imports of herrings, cod and stockfish from Northern European seas, mainly to feed the masses. From Mediterranean Spain to the marshy areas of Provence, and from the coral fishing grounds of Sardinia to the Mar Piccolo and Mar Grande of Taranto and Gargano, the Comacchio valleys and the Venetian lagoon, despite the new experimental trials that were carried out more or less everywhere, the traditional fishing techniques mentioned above remained predominant, together with night fishing with lamps (lampadare), already mentioned in the classic treatises (Oppian of Cilicia), practised both from boats and fixed positions (piers and trabucchi, also known as “lucerne”, i.e. lanterns, in some regions). Coastal lagoons, valli and coastal ponds provided a wealth of experience, beginning with knowledge of the environment and observation of the behaviour of the fish species and their seasonal migrations. This was initially of use for subsistence fishing, but later, in specific historical moments, they became a sort of workshop for innovative technologies that gradually permitted the conquest of the open sea. The fishermen of the Catalonian and Provençal valleys, and those of the Venetian lagoons and the Ionian islands and archipelago (Aegean Sea) can be credited with the technical developments and investments in aquaculture, which in the 18th century, aided by favourable circumstances, finally allowed fisheries to be ranked among market economy items worthy of government attention. Thanks to centuries of trials with certain fishing methods and an age-old transmission of knowledge, a process of transformation and improvement of traditional catching techniques began during the modern era, stimulated by previously unknown external demand, through the initiative of certain groups of fishermen, with the aim of increasing their production capacity by transferring their equipment from coastal waters to the high seas. Essentially there was a change from solitary fisheries, with a few isolated vessels, to more organised practices requiring not just boats and equipment but also experienced men and capital; in short, a well-structured fishing fleet, similar to that of their seafaring colleagues who had been operating in the Atlantic Ocean since medieval times, as the organic result of collective development.

The increase in Mediterranean fishery activities and the development of “new fishing methods” was most probably provoked by the growing demand for fish observed from the second half of the 16th century. Thanks both to the population growth recorded throughout Europe and the increased demand for fish due to the fast days prescribed in the new Church calendar following the Council of Trent (1563), communities already based on “sea economies” tended to become more competitive and transfer their work offshore, adapting equipment already successfully used in valli and along the coast to the different weather conditions and wave motion of the open sea with the help of improved technologies and original solutions.

It should, however, be borne in mind that for any invention to be accepted, take root to then spread like a chain reaction to other areas, the right favourable conditions and circumstances, such as economic and social changes, are needed. High seas were finally conquered, despite the persistence of a whole series of unresolved difficulties, not least the threat of pirates and corsairs. During these centuries the Mediterranean Sea never provided long periods or extensive areas in which the seas could be sailed without encountering ambushes or snares, even outside times of real conflict.

This is perhaps also why fishery practices, aside from particular exceptions, were carried out almost exclusively along the shores until the end of the 16th century. Coastal waters thus required supervision, with access regulated by municipal statutes in order to avoid situations of overcrowding and depletion of reserves. The limited areas of water in which fishermen could work obliged the authorities in many coastal locations, such as Noli, Gaeta and Lissa, to make an equal division of operative zones with a system of rotating shifts, allowing nominal use of the various “posts” located in the respective jurisdictions at specific times, assigned according to rankings. Essentially a sort of “competition” developed, also described by Paolo Giovio in his work on Roman fish (1523), which both controlled free fishing, limiting it to the high season, and helped to prevent the development of potential controversies. Conflicts arose among fishermen, however, once the open sea had been conquered (17th-18th century), when more enterprising groups ventured beyond their own geographic areas, invading the territorial spaces of other communities with seasonal sea migrations in pursuit of catches and to reach mid-sea and high sea fishing grounds. There is frequent mention in the history of fisheries of conflicts caused by both to the exploitation of local fish resources with well-tried and established traditional techniques, as well as to the custom of itinerant fisheries involving seasonal migrations of groups of fishermen, driven from one place to another in pursuit of moving shoals of fish and in search of more plentiful fishing grounds.

If, on the one hand, the mobility of the more evolved fishing fleets increased concerns of a protectionist nature, on the other it contributed at times improve supplies to markets in port towns that had no professional fishermen. Awareness of technically superior equipment, different from that normally used, encouraged local fishermen to try alternative fishing strategies by adapting “foreign” practices, which also allowed them to attempt a qualitative leap. Two important moments of change are observed in the history of fisheries in the Mediterranean Sea, due precisely to such contacts. The evolutionary process of two different “fishing methods”, which were to characterise the respective historical periods in which they became established, allows the definition of periods in the history of Mediterranean fisheries. Their adoption was not limited to particular geographical areas, but ranged from the western to the eastern sector, causing a rapid and radical upheaval in centuries-old fishing systems, with extremely important implications not only on the level of marine enterprise organisation, but also in terms of production, both for internal consumption within the same state as well as for export.

The introduction of a fishing technique capable of considerably increasing catch volumes also obliged communities based on a production economy to adapt their fleets to the new sailing and fishing equipment in order to keep pace and withstand competition. Research has clearly highlighted the phenomenon, which is seen to be a true “fishing revolution”, fuelled by exchanges of experience between maritime communities with the longest fishing traditions and marked by two distinct phases: the first, from the early 17th century, is characterised by the introduction and subsequent establishment of “tartana” fishing (trawl fishing using a single-mast boat with the net extended from two long poles, known as spontieri, protruding fore and aft, to which the lines of a large trawl net were fixed); the second, despite opposition from the very start, with prohibitions aimed at the protection of juvenile fish and territorial waters, appeared in the early 18th century, emphatically established itself from the middle of the century, and was based on “pair trawling”, a technique that allowed considerable mercantile development of the fresh fish trade and remained substantially unchanged until the decline of sail power. The first change, with the appearance of the so-called “tartana” technique, of French or Catalan origin, involved the adoption of a particular form of sailing requiring a series of modifications to the hull and the use of a lateen sail, with the support of additional small sails to facilitate the dragging of a net known, as was mentioned, by the term “tartana”. The Pontifical Adriatic coastline has proven to be an interesting observatory, particularly for focussing on the technique assimilation process. The stages of the change, which was quite rapid, can be traced through the monitoring of certain localities (Ancona and Pesaro). The arrival of tartanas from Provence (Martigues) in the Adriatic Sea, and with them of the new fishing method, led to the complete replacement of boats and equipment within five years, and the definitive abandonment of the previous “a bragoccio” fishing technique, which had been developed in the Venetian lagoon area (and was to some extent a forerunner of the 18th century “pair trawling”), carried out with two small boats at the short distance from the shore, with far lower yields than with the “tartana” system. Fishermen were very adaptable in welcoming and assimilating the innovative idea, proving to be capable of making changes to suit various individual needs. The first agreements concerning the second, more problematic, fishing revolution centred on large-scale adoption of “pair trawling” are documented in the western Mediterranean Sea (the Gulf of Lyons). The new fishing method then spread along the neighbouring basins until it reached the Gulf of Venice and definitively established in the late 18th century. The spread of “tartana” fishing did not create significant problems regarding the invasion of territorial spaces – except in Cetara, where an open conflict is mentioned between the Cetarese fisherman, who practiced the traditional methods used along the coast, and those from the island of Procida, who were already practising “tartana” trawl fishing. The introduction of “pair trawling”, however, due to the destructive impact on sea beds attributed to it, provoked initial rejection, both from those engaged in fishing and from the various central and peripheral state authorities, who were forced to issue an entire series of fishing bans. Upon realisation of its profitability, however, they began to issue occasional access permits, confined to sea areas with very deep beds, or even piloted liberalisation, with fleet activities limited to a restricted number. In short, public authorities, while desiring to act in defence of the marine environment and protect the resources under their jurisdiction, became inclined, particularly during times of slump, to grant certain exemptions to ensure the fishermen’s association the possibility of survival for themselves and their families through their trade.

The transformation of fisheries brought about by the two fishing revolutions also required investments for the fitting out of new vessels, with different hull and sail designs from the previous types of craft, for the use of nets that were woven differently, with a different mesh size, for the adoption of hitherto unfamiliar sailing techniques, for the social organisation of the fishing enterprise, with the definition of specific work duties for crewmembers, both on board and on land, for the construction of special buildings, stores or ice houses suitable for keeping fish fresh, and for the creation of an efficient distribution network, with the mediation of a body of forwarders and correspondents engaged in continuous pendular movements between landing ports and the inland towns. The starting point in the fisheries enterprise was naturally the purchase of the means of production, i.e. the operating capital represented by boats and equipment. This obvious fact, however, was often the start of a process that ended up penalising the main player in the production chain, namely the fisherman–ship owner. The problems that were still evident in 1869 in Chioggia, undisputedly the most representative Adriatic fishing society, can be considered typical of a situation caused by the persistence of age-old habits and generally relevant to other Mediterranean maritime divisions. What is seen in Chioggia is that, “there is no ship or fishery owner that at the same time is not also the skipper of his own wood”.

After unification of Italy, the ministerial survey on fishermen provides very interesting data on the working enterprises. One of the first figures to create a credit-based relationship with fishermen was in fact the shipwright, or protocalafato. His acceptance of the payment due to him in instalments, which at first glance could appear as easier financial terms for the customer, became over time a straightjacket solution for the fisherman, who was forced to make continuous and almost usurious payments. The cost of a fully equipped boat actually ended up being “more than twice its real value”, since “with the necessary repairs” the debt was prolonged almost perpetually. Regarding the initial credit commitment, the possibility of paying off the debt became increasingly remote due to the need for subsequent repair works, and it was made even more burdensome by to the addition of other necessary expenses.

A second figure involved in the product marketing phase was the parcenevole, a “trustee” to whom the sale of the catch was entrusted, with a guaranteed “5% commission on the gross sale price”, which also significantly reduced the profits. Squeezed in a vice between the protocalafato and the parcenevole, debt could become chronic over time for the fisherman. The tasks entrusted to the fish vendor made him, to all purposes, the financial administrator of the fishing enterprise, since he was responsible for the calculation of both landed catch quantities and sales, which he conducted in the public fish market “all’orecchio”, i.e. through a sort of auction which he held starting from a base price. Most fishermen were therefore in a condition of extreme precariousness, from which the shipwright and the fish vendor in particular gained profit, together with other tradesmen, such as the blacksmith and the rope maker, who were engaged in activities of support to the fishing enterprise. These were basically “four vampires”, to express it with the metaphorical succinctness of Domenico Andrea Renier, drafter of the government enquiry. With no government incentives, the fisherman, who was always short of available finances, since numerous forces severely limited the accumulation of savings, had no other option except recourse to loans to continue the work he had begun. Earnings, when made, could only be accumulated gradually, and so, in order to have boats fit for sailing the high seas and the necessary working equipment, fishermen exposed themselves to risk in the attempt to increase their production capacities, accumulating debts not only with shipwrights, but also with caulkers, sail makers, mast makers, rope makers and others tradesmen associated with fisheries.

External financing therefore became essential, and burdensome levels of interest were assumed in order to gain immediate access to it, usually equal to a share, or even fractions of a share, to be paid periodically with the division of the profits from fish sales. The increase in production and the growth of fisheries during the 19th century did not really help fishermen as a class to emerge from a state of poverty. Due to the observance of ancient “habits and customs”, they remained in a situation of subjection to the boat owners, fish sellers and moneylenders, from which it was not easy to escape and for which a solution was only provided much later, in the early 20th century. From the late 16th century, however, despite many social and organisational problems, a transformation began in the fish trade, which over two centuries led to the eclipse of traditional commerce in fish, together with eating habits established in the Middle Ages, with the progressive development of deliveries of the fresh product, even over long distances, to the detriment of preserved fish.

Many topics still need adequate examination and archival research could certainly provide further important information on the phenomenal growth of Mediterranean fish production between the 17th and the 20th centuries and the evolution of fisheries and fresh fish trade, in other words, on those economic micro-functions interwoven into the daily life of sea workers.


Photo: Return of the fishing boats, late 19th century (Photo M. Filippini collection)


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