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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Love and Death in the Seas of Sicily

Air Date: Week of

Author Theresa Maggio talks with Steve Curwood about observing ancient rituals of fishing for tuna off the coast of Sicily.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And with me now is Theresa Maggio, and her new book is called "Mattanza: Love and Death in the Sea of Sicily." And I want to play you something. Can you tell me what we're listening to?

(Splashing and screams)

MAGGIO: This is the Mattanza. It's the killing of the giant bluefin tuna, the central rite of a long fishing ritual.

CURWOOD: Where are we?

MAGGIO: About a mile and a half off the coast of Favignana, a small island off the northwest coast of Sicily.

CURWOOD: And -- I never heard about this before. How did you find out about this?

MAGGIO: Back in 1986, I lived with a Sicilian fisherman, near Palermo, named Piero. And he wanted me to see his heroes. And it was Piero who later that year in May took me to Favignana to see La Mattanza .

CURWOOD: What exactly happens at La Mattanza?

MAGGIO: La Mattanza, as I said, is the apex of a year of waiting for the giant bluefin tuna, who have entered this seven-roomed trap, an enormous trap.

CURWOOD: A trap. This is, like, put on the ocean floor.

MAGGIO: Yes. It's 300 yards long, three football fields long, and about 64 yards wide at its widest point. It's made with net walls and it's divided into seven rooms. It's also composed of two barrier nets that extend for several miles out into the Mediterranean Sea, into the migration path of bluefin tuna who have entered the Mediterranean to spawn. These barrier nets ambush the tuna and funnel them into the mouth of this trap. When the tuna are finally herded into the penultimate room, the rais, who is the chief fisherman, has a bell rung the evening before a Mattanza .

(A bell rings)

MAGGIO: The next day, shortly after dawn, he and his fishermen go out to this trap and form a square around the last room, the seventh room in this trap, which is called the Chamber of Death, and pull up a net floor while the men sing dirges.


The songs synchronize their actions. Forty men must pull up this net evenly, otherwise the fish could escape. As they pull up this net floor, hundreds of trapped tuna rise to the surface.

CURWOOD: Hundreds of trapped tuna. I mean, these are big animals.

MAGGIO: If they're lucky. Yeah.

CURWOOD: They can be what? Eight hundred pounds, 600?

MAGGIO: They can get up to 1,400 pounds. They are the second largest bony fish in the ocean after the black marlin.

CURWOOD: And they get hundreds of these at one time in this Mattanza?

MAGGIO: If they wait long enough, they get hundreds. These days they'll do a Mattanza with 50 fish, so that tourists, or people who come from far away, can be sure to see one on a weekend.

CURWOOD: So they pull the net up, and then what happens?

MAGGIO: They pull this net floor up, and you see hundreds of huge black shapes rising to the surface. And these are the giant bluefin tuna.

CURWOOD: There is a passage in your book about this. Could you read that for me, please?

MAGGIO: I would love to. (Reading) After a while, huge black shapes rose up into the backlit square. Their slow rising was mystical, like a birth. They rose higher. Dorsal fins swirled: wild animals drawn up from the silent abyss. They were giants, eight feet long, some bigger, and there were hundreds of them. The net was drawn taut, and they skittered in front of us half out of the water. I looked into their glassy black eyes.

(Sounds of a crowd, talking, screaming)

MAGGIO: The fish were as big as men, some bigger than four men. When their tails slapped the water it rose in columns above our heads. I remember the din, the thunder of falling water, and their frantic thrashing. They darted to the corners of the net, but there was no way out. The crowd went wild. People were soaked, screaming, and cheering. Piero was delirious with joy. These fishermen were his heroes. Their net was full of fighting giant bluefins. It was a scene he saw in his dreams, but he was awake and this was real. Piero tried to pull me back from the edge, but I was riveted. The fish were churning the sea into a white froth, and the froth turned pink. When the thrashing calmed, they were battered, bleeding, and floating on their sides. But they were still alive. When the dying tuna quivered, it shook the eight men who held it. Its form was a perfect giant pointed egg. Its skin was polished marble, blue as the Earth from space. It changed colors as it died. Shimmering veils of opalescent pink and green washed over it. Red blood streamed from a gash in its flank. The men got ready to lift. They counted to two and heaved the fish to the gunwale, balanced it there on the fulcrum, and rested. The fish thumped out its life like thunder.

CURWOOD: What's it like to be with not just one giant fish like this dying, but hundreds of these fish giving up their lives?

MAGGIO: (Sighs) It's something that you really can't describe. It's hard to take in. It's like a cataclysm. I imagine it's like watching an above-ground nuclear test. You can't come up with the words for it. And even the atomic bomb, though terrible, was beautiful.

CURWOOD: And this is beautiful.

MAGGIO: The fish are beautiful. The scene is beautiful. It's a little like watching a Greek tragedy, which I have seen in Italian in Sicily and Syracuse. It evokes a strange mix of emotions in you. You feel for the fish. You know the men are doing this to live.

CURWOOD: You've been yourself time after time, though. Right?

MAGGIO: Yes. I believe I've seen 15 Mattanzas now, over a decade.

CURWOOD: And do you think you've seen your last? Or are you eager to go see them again?

MAGGIO: I'll probably see another Mattanza if there is another one. They are having Mattanzas this year. As a matter of fact, last Saturday was the first Mattanza of this year and of this millennium. I can't believe that they've actually lasted into the third millennium.

CURWOOD: Spiritually, tell me. Tell me about the Mattanza. What does it mean to you, and what does it mean to the people of Favignana?

MAGGIO: The tonnara of Favignana -- a tonnara is a tuna trap, it's the ensemble of the men who work at the equipment, the boats, the net house, and the tradition -- the tonnara of Favignana is one of only two Sicilian tonnaras left, in the place where only 50 years ago there were 50 tonnaras all around the coast of Sicily. The giant bluefin tuna was a yearly miracle, and now Favignana's is the last one left where they still recite the prayers, chant the rituals, bless the boats. It's a blood sacrifice.


MAGGIO: Just to live. They do it to live.

CURWOOD: Theresa Maggio's new book is called "Mattanza: Love and Death in the Sea of Sicily." Thank you so much for coming by, Theresa.

MAGGIO: Thank you for having me, Steve.



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