"Tonnara, an Ancient World"
An Ocean in Focus Conservation Photography Contest Essay
Alessio Viora

Ring of boats with nets

Fishermen monitor their tuna nets


Tuna are not alone in the nets

Closeup - fish caught in net

A sunfish (mola-mola) is entangled and killed

Fish hanging in ship compartment

Tuna hang, waiting to be processed

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"Tonnara, an Ancient World"
An Ocean in Focus Conservation Photography Contest Essay
Alessio Viora

Once upon a time there was a noble tradition facing man and nature.

Ever since the Sardinian tuna fishermen had created a clever and elaborate system for catching fish, by way of fixed nets placed at strategic points where the ancient wisdom shows the way of this splendid pelagic. Nets are lowered more than 40 meters to the bottom of the sea and have a fixed dimension of 40m x 60m, creating a real oasis for the tuna, thus making them feel safe inside this open space and not having to swim long distances, also encouraging faster growth and allowing the tuna to achieve a far greater size allowing better and more profitable sales of their meat.

It is a real privilege to dive in these vast areas, where each time it is possible to encounter the RAIS (boss) which through his prayer to the sea gives the start to the Mattanza (the lift of the tuna from water), still done by hand today by a selected few fishermen. It is always a fierce battle with risks for both sides, and happens only a few times during the seasons, depending on how many fish enter the net and how big the demand is, especially from the Japanese market.

Deep down 35 meters in the nets we can admire many of these larger tuna, swimming like silver rockets in the blue. Getting closer to the nets we can get a glimpse of a shark's silhouette or a swordfish looking for an easy prey trapped within the nets.

But in the nets we also see too many other innocent species get trapped. Turtles, dolphins, but particularly Sunfish (Mola-Mola). Trapped in fixed nets, they slowly die due to the scars caused by the snares that damage their protective mucus. A cruel, senseless death, since they can't even be eaten. Even we risk to get trapped within the nets as they move along with the waves while we observe, helpless, the suffering of many splendid animals.

This fishing method is surely less destructive than dragging nets, nevertheless sadness remains for the large catch that has to be discarded, an enormous tribute that cannot be forgotten.

Time goes quickly by and oxygen only allows us a short stay in this strange, unique world that even now in the 21st century keeps his millenary tradition intact.

And above our head, in the Sardinian blue sky, the Rais offers once more his prayer to the sea and starts the battle that will only end when even the last tuna will be caught.

I have been diving there many times and still hope to for many years to come, despite the indubitable charm of the experience. I hope a way can be found to protect all the fragile animals that year after year will be wastefully destroyed.


Photo of Alessio VioraAlessio Viora has been an underwater photographer since 1996. Viora hopes that some of his work may contribute to the education of children. In his career he has won more than 100 prizes in underwater photography worldwide and remains passionate about it today. Viora is currently based out of Fontaneto d'Agogna, Italy.