The Lights of Cinque Terre
Italy | Liguria | Monterosso, La spezia
Beppe Martelli comes from a family of fishermen in Monterosso. He describes how the trade has changed since his grandfather’s time.
“I became a fisherman because that’s what my father did,” says Beppe, a native of Monterosso, one of the five Cinque Terre villages along the Ligurian coast. He’s been fishing now for 45 years and he can’t imagine life without the sea, his fishing lamp and his anchovies.
Beppe goes out in the evening as the light fades, and returns when there are no more fish to be seen. He fishes at night using lamps called lampare. When the area with the most anchovies has been identified, the lamp is lit, illuminating the plankton that attract the fish. As the fish swim towards the light, they are caught in nets. The kind of boat used is called a gozzo, no more than 10 meters long. The nets used are in proportion to the small boats and are no longer than 200 meters, creating a wall 30 meters deep.
In the past the anchovies would be salted by women who waited for the boats on the shore. As soon as the boats pulled up, they would start cleaning the anchovies while still on the beach. The anchovies were layered with salt inside terracotta containers. Preserving the fish in salt is quite a complex manual operation: the fish are very delicate and require special care. The anchovies are stored in a glass or terracotta container under salt; the aging period varies depending on the salting and can range from one to six months.
Anchovy fishing could once again become a work opportunity for young people, as well as an important economic resource, supplementing the by-now over-exploited tourism industry. Beppe, however, is not very hopeful. “The fisherman’s trade is over,” he says. “In my day, children dreamed of being a fisherman when they grew up. My father started when he was 7, I started when I was 10. Today’s young fishermen are 40!”
According to Beppe, the main problem is the excessive exploitation of the sea by big fishing boats and the regional authority’s lack of protection for small-scale fishermen. “You no longer see the big swarms of fish we were once lucky to find when we switched on the lamp. The numbers of many fish species are falling drastically because of the type of fishing being practiced. Boats are using sonar and big nets. They identify a shoal of fish and then catch them all together.” A fisherman from Monterosso with a small boat and a lamp can never compete with these giants.
“The Liguria Regional Authority has never drawn up fishing regulations to protect those who live in this area. Everyone can come and fish and then sell their fish anywhere in Italy and beyond. It’s fine that people can go everywhere and also decide to come and fish here, but there should be rules that protect the sea and the local fishermen, like only allowing certain sizes of nets and boats. If you are a small boat and you work near your home and they close off the best fishing sites, you’ll find yourself in competition with people you can never compete with! It’s hard to be virtuous when the others aren’t. Very often you’re forced to change the fishing techniques you’ve always used in order to increase your catch and your income. In some cases if you don’t do it you might as well abandon your boat.”
Until 30 years ago, fishing was the main activity in Monterosso, and into the 1980s the village was home to a large fishing cooperative, Monterossina. Then the downward trajectory began: now there are only four fishermen, members of the Cooperativa Piccola Pesca Monterosso. Nonetheless the salted anchovies from this small village are still famous and the traditional fishing technique has remained the same.