Bringing a Generation Back to the Water
Italy | Umbria | Lago Trasimeno, San Feliciano, Perugia
Aurelio Cocchini chose the fisherman’s life 30 years ago and now works in a fishing cooperative on Lake Trasimeno.
” ‘Let these fishermen die in peace.’ Well, it made quite an impression on me to hear a public official talk about fishermen like that during the first meeting I attended. The subject was aging in the sector and how in the long term it would lead to the end of this trade, and in a calm tone he finished his speech with the most offensive words I’ve ever heard. At that moment I swore to myself that I would do whatever I could to save this profession, if it was the last thing I did.”
Aurelio has been fishing on Lake Trasimeno since 1980. He began working during his last year of high school, just before graduating. “I didn’t even finish because I had such a desire for freedom, a desire for open air and water,” he says.
The conviction that dialog can fix any kind of dispute and incomprehension has led Aurelio to have no prejudices towards anyone and to build relationships with anyone, from institutions to television, who can help him publicize the situation of the lake’s small-scale fishermen, their needs and their problems. “I’ve prostituted myself. I’ve networked. Now in this area no decisions are made in the tourism sector without first consulting the fishermen. Thanks to this positive image around the figure of the fisherman, who now enjoys more respect and dignity, this year we’ve had four budding fishermen wanting to start work.” A success.
Aurelio doesn’t have a great passion for fishing, but he is deeply in love with everything the job brings with it: contact with nature, slow rhythms and so on. “The craft of fishing, if done using traditional methods, is very tiring, it leaves no space for anything else,” he says. “Often you’re forced to put your family in second place.”
“It was the lake fishermen who fascinated me. They’re great people, with strong ethics and at the same time a bit anarchic. I wanted to become like them.” Aurelio wanted to share their mentality and belong to the same local culture. “They’re free!” he says.
The San Feliciano sul Trasimeno cooperative was founded in 1928. Currently 32 fishermen belong to the cooperative; they are all partner-employees and some of their income goes to the cooperative. Their earnings depend on how much they work and how much they catch. In this way everyone is free to do what they want and free to manage their own work.
Lake Trasimeno was an arm of the Mediterranean that became cut off from the main sea. Over the centuries evaporation has turned the lake’s water fresh, and it is perfect for fishing. The cooperative’s fishermen catch wild fish rather than farming fish. This does not guarantee large quantities, but it is sustainable and has a long tradition in the area. During the winter they put the nets out in the evening and haul them in the following morning. This is called pesca a fermo, “fixed fishing.” In the summer they practice pesca al volo, “fishing on the fly.” They stretch the nets out in parallel under the surface of the water for around 3 kilometres and then gather them before the sun rises.
Traditional flat rowboats are used in this area, making it easy to navigate through the cane thickets. The fishermen always used to go out in pairs, and while one rowed, the other pulled in the nets. Since motorboats were introduced, the fishermen can also go on their own. But Aurelio is not so happy about this: “For me it’s frustrating to be alone, I prefer the company. I like going to fish with a companion in the boat. There was a reason they used to go out in pairs, it wasn’t just a practical matter. The cooperative also organizes fishing groups in which there is often an expert and someone younger.”
“We realized that the idea of quality connected to tradition that we promote at a tourism level in this area is not always coherent. Sometimes it is hard to guarantee high quantities of a certain type of fish ‘traditional’ to the area. And, catching wild fish, you get whatever you get. Perch, for example, is one of our great resources and hasn’t been seen this year. So we decided to change the promotion slogan and move from a concept of quality to one of uniqueness. The tourists that come here will have the chance to eat something unique to the area and in particular to that day, and this will help them make their experience unique. Tying the promotion just to tradition doesn’t always make sense. If we find ourselves catching fish that aren’t usually very common in the lake, that’s all well and good. And if they have bones… well, then we’ll teach customers how to go back to eating fish with their hands!”
Of the cooperative’s sales, 90% go to restaurants. The next step will be for the cooperative to have its own restaurant. For now they have sales points owned by the cooperative where they can sell directly. “Marketing the product is the hardest part,” says Aurelio.
“Wild fishing is destined to die and it will be replaced by fish farming. Today most of the world’s fish is farmed. They’re fish fed on corn. I only hope they don’t become a middle-class luxury.” Aquaculture often involves fattening up carnivorous fish such as salmon and tuna. Clearly the operation makes sense from a commercial point of view, as the farmed fish command much higher prices than the fish used to feed them, even when these forage fish (sardines, mackerel and herring, for example) can also be eaten by humans.
“Either we’ll be able to transform things or they’ll end. For example I spent this summer organizing fishing tourism. There’s more and more interest every year. It’s not what I love doing the most, but it’s fine. I can teach the tourists something more about this lake and fishing and make them more aware about the sustainable fish campaign. I try to get them enthusiastic, because if someone loves the water they won’t treat it badly and they won’t tolerate others treating it badly.”
“I like to call myself a guardian of the lake and I hope that future generations of fishermen will think the same,” he concludes.