1st October, 2003
Seeing bluefin tuna gaffed is like watching a thoroughbred racehorse being hacked to death with an axe.‘The bluefin were to ancient Mediterranean peoples what the buffalo were to the American plains Indian,’ writes Theresa Maggio in her brilliant little book Mattanza. The book charts the history of Sicily’s annual tuna harvests, or tonnara, from the time of the Carthaginians and Phoenicians five centuries before Christ right up to the present day. (Mattanza is an Italian word that means ‘killing’.) Maggio describes tuna fishing as ‘a yearly miracle, a reliable source of protein from a giant animal [the people of the Mediterranean] revered, one that passed in such numbers that the cooperation of an entire tribe was needed to kill and preserve [its] meat’. ‘Around the Mediterranean,’ says Maggio, ‘the migrating bluefin was a staple food for entire civilisations.’
Describing the second-century tonnara in Halieutica, the Greek poet and naturalist Oppian wrote: ‘Dropped in the water are nets arranged like a city. There are rooms and gates and deep tunnels and atria and courtyards. The tuna arrive in great haste, drawn together like a phalanx of men who march in rank. There are the young, the old, the adults. And they swim, innumerable, inside the nets, and...
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