Italian fisherman sinks illegal trawlers with ‘otherworldly’ underwater sculptures
Italian fisherman Paolo Fanciulli scours the wilderness of the Maremma coast daily in search of mullet and sea bream. He’s been fishing these waters off Tuscany for over 40 years but, until recently, he’s been forced to share them with a dangerous counterpart.
In the late 1980s Fanciulli began noticing the obvious signs of illegal trawling. The seabed was becoming barren and fish stocks were rapidly depleting. With livelihoods at stake, Fanciulli felt compelled to act.
Thus, in 2013, the underwater sculpture park “House of Fish” was born. His local bay is now safe, but he has already set his sights on the coast which remains unprotected.
Sculptures under the sea
Along part of the Tuscan coast before the town of Talamone, gigantic stone sculptures now dot the seabed. Crafted from Carrara marble, the same material favored by Renaissance master Michelangelo, the artworks are already coated in a thick layer of seaweed.
Among the sculptures are the monumental head of the Weeping Guardian by British artist Emily Young and the Ittico Obelisco by Massimo Catalani, resembling the remains of an ancient submerged city.
A total of 39 sculptures now rest on the seabed and 12 more are in the works.
Sunken statues have been used in various coastal locations by conservationists or authorities trying to revive a declining marine population. But the vzw Casa dei Pescior House of Fish, was the passion project of a fisherman, determined to protect a coastline from devastating illegal fishing.
While the practices of Fanciulli and other local fishermen are necessarily sustainable—if they damage the ecosystem, they lose their source of income—bottom trawlers were destroying the bay indiscriminately.
“They were devastating the sea and my way of life,” Fanciulli told Euronews. “If the sea dies, so does the fisherman. You cannot just take, you must also give.
Trawlers use heavy nets which they drag along the seabed, snatching up plant and marine life as they go. They get a big catch, but casually strip the seabed in the process. “It’s like a hunter wanting to catch a wild boar and burn the forest to catch it,” says Fanciulli.
Here on the Maremma coast, this scraping of the seabed leads to the destruction of Posidonia, also known as Neptune’s grass, which forms in vast seabeds.
“The life of the sea begins with the Posidonia”, explains Fanciulli. These seagrass beds function as a nursery for the region’s marine life. Creatures like lobsters and sea breams lay their eggs there.
It is also a powerful carbon sink, absorbing 15 times more CO2 annually than an equivalent parcel of the Amazon rainforest.
As such, bottom trawling is prohibited within three nautical miles of the Italian coast but, with such profitable catches, continues regardless. Due to the country’s vast coastline, the police may not be able to control all of it.
But Fanciulli is much more skeptical and convinced of the mafia’s involvement. Either way, it left many areas like the Maremma coast at the mercy of trawlers.
A fisherman turned activist
Fanciulli began protesting and making television appearances in the late 1980s to fight bottom trawlers near his hometown of Talamone. It made him something of a local hero (known as Paolo the fisherman), but it also earned him enemies, he says, and saw him blacklisted by police-controlled fish markets. mafia.
Ilaria de Bernardis, a journalist who has co-author of a book about Fanciulli, says: “This period looks like a spy story, he risked his life against illegal trawlers.” In those early days, he was a lone fisherman against a much more powerful enemy, de Bernardis explains.
However, in 2006 Fanciulli decided to work with local authorities to drop concrete bollards into the sea. act as a deterrent to illegal trawling because they snag the nets. If trawlers do not cast nets, their boats may sink.
The blocks were too scattered to trap the fishermen’s nets, but they gave Fanciulli an idea: “I decided to use art to stop them instead.” As de Bernardis says, “He wanted to defend beauty with beauty”.
Fanciulli contacted Franco Barattini, president of the quarry where Michelangelo got his marble, to request a few blocks. Barattini donated 100 of them. Nearly half of these blocks have now been carved into sculptures and deposited on the seabed.
continue the fight
Fanciulli’s otherworldly sculpture park fulfills its main purpose. Illegal trawling has been completely stopped in the area. More than that, the artwork encouraged marine life to return to the waters.
With the regrowth of Posidonia, the number of fish increases again. The lobsters came back as well as the turtles. The Underwater Museum is also open to visitors who can join a scuba diving or snorkeling trip or arrange their own.
“With the House of Fish, we have created a cultural attraction, we are protecting the sea and helping with repopulation,” says Fanciulli.
The rest of the 15 ton marble blocks will probably be enough for several more years of the project as transportation and placement in the sea is a long and expensive process. But, in the meantime, Fanciulli also dreams of including replicas of Roman amphoras in the sculpture park.
“I want to put 50 of them in my museum which will become a natural home for octopuses,” he says.
With illegal trawling still rampant in areas further up the coast, Fanciulli’s intention is to continue expanding the Fish House. “Man always destroys the seas,” he says. “And my mission continues.”