The essence of life is that it lives by killing and eating
Joseph Campbell in the Power of Myth1

A darned big fish

The bluefin tuna or Thunnus thynnus, to give it its proper Latin name, is a big fish. It can weigh up to a three quarters of a ton, lives to twenty or thirty years old and can be fifteen foot long, although they are more commonly around seven feet long and four hundred pounds. Bluefin tuna are also surprisingly fast; they can accelerate from nought to sixty in ten seconds and can swim at speeds up to 45 mph.

They are therefore not that easy to catch.

Or they weren't. Nowadays there are factory ships that cruise the open seas and set out to catch them with satellite navigation and mammoth purse seine nets that sweep the seas with a remarkable degree of efficiency. (Much too efficiently for some people, as such fishing techniques tend to result in the capture of other aquatic species such as dolphins.)

These bluefin tuna are not destined for the average local supermarket; the tuna you find neatly packed away in tin cans is generally skipjack or yellowfin. The bluefin tuna is a gourmet fish, its destiny is the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, Japan where the average price for a whole bluefin is 20,000 USD, and prices of 40,000, 60,000 or even 80,000 USD for a single fish are not unknown. Here the bluefin will be carved into sushi and sashimi and served to wealthy businessmen in the country's finest restaurants.

How to catch a tuna

The bluefin tuna swim around the Atlantic Ocean, but every year they migrate to their spawning grounds in the Mediterranean Sea2. The Phoenicians caught them and built a salting plant near Cadiz; the Greeks caught them and called them 'seapigs'. The Romans called them cete meaning 'giant' and all around the Mediteranean Sea they are towns who derive their name from some variant of cete as testament to the annual harvest of the bluefin tuna. Even the land of Canaan is apparently named after the Hebrew word for tuna.

Bereft of modern technology the ancient and traditional way of catching a tuna in the Mediterranean was to build a very big fish trap, and wait for the migrating tuna to swim in and catch themselves. In the second century Oppiano of Cilicia wrote of "nets arranged like a city. There are rooms and gates and deep tunnels and atria and courtyards".

All around the Mediterranean, people built these tuna fisheries to harvest the annual migration of the tuna, as each spring they swam through the Strait of Gibraltar. Until the last century the Mediteranean Sea was ringed with tuna fisheries, before the factory ships came thirty years ago to sweep the sea clean. Now there are only two left, both in Sicily one on the island of Favignana and the other on Sicily's west coast at the village of Bonagia.

Favignana and Bonagia are the last remaining tonnara or tuna fisheries of the Mediterranean. The Favignana tonnara can be traced back to 807 AD when it was founded by north African Arabs, and to this day they use the Arabic word rais for admiral, as the title for the managers of the tuna fisheries.

At Favignana they built their trap with seven rooms and two large barrier nets to funnel the fish inside. They gave each of the seven rooms a name, the Levante, Camera Grande, Bordonaio, Bastardo, Bastardella and then the final room of all, the Camera della Morte, the Chamber of Death.3

The Camera della Morte is unique as it is the only room that has a net floor. Each spring the tuna come and the fishermen shepherd them through the rooms. When the rais judges the day is right, the fishermen set out in their boats and form a square around the Camera della Morte and raise up the net floor, bringing the thrashing bluefins to the surface.

This is the mattanza, the 'slaughter', the ancient ritual of the killing of the tuna.

The fisherman use gaffs, long barbed poles, to hook the tuna and hoist them into their boats, as the tuna churn the sea into a white froth and the froth turns red with blood, and whiter still as the tuna jettison their spawn at the very moment of death. It is "An eruption, a paroxysm. A font of primal energy, beauty and suffering, all in a tiny square of sea." 4

It is hard and dangerous work, as a bluefin tuna is large enough to break a man's back if not handled correctly. Once they fishermen have finished hauling the bluefin aboard, they pack crushed ice round the fish and take them back to harbour. They sell them to the Japanese who have them air-freighted half way across the world to Tokyo.

It is not a particularly lucrative business, as the factory ships represent a far more effficient way of catching bluefin tuna. The tradional tonnara rely on subsidies from the Italian authorities to keep going and income from curious tourists who pay to come and watch the ancient ritual enacted.

We are waiting for the tuna, but they haven't come.5

Not everyone approves of the mattanza, regarding it as a barabric relic of past. The Italian Anti-Vivisection League the Lega Anti Vivisezione, would like the practice to be outlawed, calling it "a barbaric spectacle of cruelty", likening it to bull-fighting and have claimed that it "exists only as a bloody performance for tourists".6

Naturally the fishermen disagree. To them it is simply fishing as it is supposed to be and the way it has been done for generations. They have their supporters who argue that although the mattanza looks violent, it is actually less cruel to the tuna than being dragged out of the ocean by a factory ship and slowly suffocated to death. Which is why the Japanese pay a premium for fish caught in the traditional manner; it makes better sushi.

Perhaps circumstances have rendered this particular dispute somewhat academic, as in this year of 2003 there were no tuna. The factory ships have done their job to well, and the great traps of Favignana and Bonagia remained empty and there was no mattanza.

A tradition is now dying.


1 Quoted by Theresa Maggio see SOURCES below.

2 And also the Gulf of Mexico as it happens, but that is a different story.

3 Yes I know that is only six names, but Ms Maggio only names six.

4 Theresa Maggio see SOURCES below.

5 Salvatore Spataro, the rais of the Bonagia tonnara and former rais of Favignana from Seafood.Com.

6 Ennio Bonfanti of the Sicilian branch of the Lega Anti Vivisezione from the italydaily source.


Theresa Maggio Mattanza: Love and Death in the Sea of Sicily (Perseus Publishing, 2000)

John Moretti Favignana's yearly tuna slaughter sparks a debate: Is it fishing or foul play? at

Sicilians lament end of ancient tuna ritual from Seafood.Com citing Times Newspapers Limited The Times (London)] May 12, 2003 at

Technical Bluefin Tuna information from

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