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Bluefin tuna hunting - Bluefin tuna fishing

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Tuna hunting

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 tuna hunting.

Coastal tuna trap near Gibraltar
Tuna towers similar to that described by Aelian still exist in Bakarac, Croatia
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.