The Northern bluefin tuna (thunnus thynnus) holds an almost mythic
position among the world's pelagic fish, since ancient times. For
centuries, bluefin tuna have been seasonally trapped along the
coastlines of the Mediterranean as they migrate through local waters at
the same time each year.
The Chorus of Knights in Aristophanes' fifth-century BCE comedy of the
same name makes reference to the tunnoskopoi, men who went to high
cliffs or mounted tall 'tuna towers' to watch for the migrating tuna and
direct the operations of the boats which would set out on the hunt.
Aristotle described the migratory and reproductive habits of tuna in his
treatise History of Animals, written in 350 BCE. Aristotle and others
carefully observed their migrations, in order to be able to trap them in
the most efficient ways.
The Greek historian, geographer and philosopher Strabo (63/64 BC - ca.
AD 24) also writes of the migration of great shoals of young tuna from
their birthplace in the northern reaches of the Black Sea (which the
Greeks called the Pontus Euxinus), and their journey to Byzantium, where
they must pass through the narrow channel of the Propontis (ancient
Greek name for The Sea of Marmara) to reach the sea beyond. Their
journey was hazardous, because of the fishermen who know exactly when
and where they will pass. Strabo describes vividly their trip and their
capture at Byzantium. An inscription (set up by fishermen who had leased
the rights to a tuna tower) found in the area of the narrow straits that
connect the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, describing large-scale
fishing operations there, confirms Strabo's observations.
The area around Byzantium was Tuna Heaven in ancient times.
Byzantium was an ancient Greek city, which was founded by Greek
colonists from Megara in 667 BC and named after their king
Byzas. The city is what later evolved to be the center of the
Byzantine Empire under the name of Constantinople.
Constantinople fell to the Turkish Ottoman Empire in 1453. The
name of the city was changed to Istanbul in 1930 following the
establishment of modern Turkey. It is located on the Bosphorus
Strait that connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara. The
Sea of Marmara is connected by the Dardanelles (Hellespont) to
the Aegean Sea, and thereby to the Mediterranean Sea. These
narrow straits of the Sea of Marmara were a natural trap for
Coastal tuna trap near Gibraltar
Tuna towers similar to that described by Aelian still exist in
Claudius Aelianus (ca. 175-ca. 235), often seen as just Aelian,
was a Roman author and teacher of rhetoric. Roman-born, he spoke
Greek perfectly, preferred Greek authors, and wrote in a
slightly archaizing Greek himself. In his chief works, On the
Nature of Animals, ("On the Characteristics of Animals" is an
alternative title), Aelian give us a vivid image of the tuna
fishing operations and detailed description of the Tuna Towers
used in the Propontis:
"Now the inhabitants of the whole of that country know exactly
of the coming of the Tunny, and at that season of the year (mid
July) the fish arrive, and much gear has been got ready to deal
with them, boats and nets and a high lookout place.
This lookout place is fixed on some beach and stands where there
is a wide, uninterrupted view. Two high pine-trunks held apart
by wide balks of timber, are set up; the latter are interwoven
in the structure at short intervals and are of great assistance
to the watchman in mounting to the top.
Each of the boats has six young men, strong rowers, on either
side. The nets are of considerable length; they are not too
light and so far from being kept floating by corks are actually
weighted with lead, and these fish swim into them in shoals.
And when the spring begins to shine and the breezes are blowing
softly and the air is bright and as it were smiling and the
waves are at rest and the sea smooth, the watcher, whose
mysterious skill and naturally sharp sight enable him to see the
fish, announces to the fishermen the quarter from which they are
coming; if on the one hand the men ought to spread their nets
near the shore, he instructs them accordingly; but if closer in,
like a general he gives the signal, or like a conductor, the
keynote. And frequently he will tell the total number of fish
and not be off the mark."
Until recently there were hundreds of coastal tuna traps set annually
throughout the Mediterranean. In Sicily alone there were more than 50
coastal tuna traps. Today, they are almost all gone, having been
replaced by commercial fishing ships, as well as by destructive,
non-selective fishing methods such as long-line fishing, drift nets,
gill nets and purse seines.
Now, instead of waiting for the tuna to pass nearby only once each year,
factory fishing boats seek out the tuna in the open sea, using sonar,
spotter planes and helicopters to locate their catch. Modern technology
has enabled us to accomplish in 40 years what the traditional coastal
tuna trapping did not in over 3000 years - overfish the bluefin.
Over thousands of springtimes, as far back as Homer's Odyssey, the
fishermen of Mediterranean have battled giant bluefin tuna in
traditional way. Now, the few remaining coastal tuna trap can no longer
be supported by the meager catch. In 2003 and 2004, the tonnara (trap of
fishing nets) at Favignana (the island famous for its tuna fisheries,
situated approximately 7 km west of the coast of Sicily) failed to
capture any fish, to the intense disappointment of both the fishermen
and the tourists gathered to watch this ancient spectacle.
The Bluefin Tuna, a massive, beautiful, powerful fish, is on the verge
of extinction due to modern, destructive, non-selective methods of
fishing and uncontrolled and indiscriminate exploitation of this
migratory mariner. The World Wildlife Fund recently predicted that if
current fishing trends continue, bluefins could virtually disappear from
the Atlantic by 2020. The species' global spawning stock is now down to
as little as 5 percent of its 1940s levels. To read more about
commercial overfishing of the world's most valuable fish click here.