Voices from Lampedusa - Fishermen and boats: local perspectives on a unmanaged issue


Lampedusa is the largest of the Pelagie Islands (20km2) with 6,000 inhabitants, located approximately 60 nautical miles from the Tunisian coast and 110 miles from the Sicilian coast.  

Favaloro's Pier. July 2023
Favaloro's Pier. July 2023

Historically, it has been a crossroads for peoples crossing the Mediterranean: from the Phoenicians to the Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, and Spaniards, leading to the settlements of the first Bourbon colonists, the earliest inhabitants of modern Lampedusa, in 1843. The colony, initially conceived for agricultural development and later for charcoal production, led to a profound transformation of the landscape and resources: large areas of vegetation were converted into farmland or used for grazing, progressively reducing the island's green cover. 

Driven by necessity, the people of Lampedusa therefore turned to an activity that still represents a part of the island's economy today, namely bluefin fishing, even venturing near the coasts of North Africa, West Africa, and North America. In more recent times, the island's economy has shifted again, focusing more on tourism as the primary source of livelihood.

The interactions between the people of Lampedusa and North African populations are not a recent phenomenon solely related to the increase in migration flows to the largest of the Pelagie Islands, but can be traced back in history, especially with the Tunisians. In the 19th century, many Lampedusan and Sicilian fishermen and farmers found better opportunities in Tunisia, forming true communities over time. These relationships lasted until the late 1990s, before the Schengen Convention came into effect in 1995. Before this date, Tunisians, Lampedusans, and Sicilians had continuous exchanges both in terms of employment and tourism, without the need for visas to cross the Mediterranean. This convention abolished internal borders among the main countries of the European Union included in the agreement, thus committing to intensify border controls at the external frontiers.

The closure of external borders has led to the need to obtain visas, residence permits, or to apply for international protection to enter the countries of the Convention, significantly reducing regular entries from countries outside this area. "Irregular" migrations thus began to proliferate, and over the years, thousands of small boats, often in extremely precarious conditions, started reaching Italian shores carrying people on the move.

This contributed to a subsequent intensification of control policies and militarization by the States and the European Union, transforming Lampedusa into one of the gateways or rejections of the so-called "Fortress Europe". At the same time, this has also attracted the attention of the media and institutions, making Lampedusa a symbolic place of the "spectacle" of the border.

Despite this phenomenon being ongoing for at least 30 years, the local population still faces gaps arising from a national management characterized by a perpetual state of emergency and short-term policies rather than structural solutions.

Local Perspectives

Fishermen play an important role as observers of the dynamics that involve the coasts of Lampedusa. Their perspective shows us how the phenomenon of migration is closely linked to local customs and administrative management. Today, speaking with some residents, it is possible to understand how fishing has changed.

Lorenzo (pseudonym), a former fisherman from Lampedusa who is 88 years old, although no longer at sea, often visits the port and vividly recounts his voyages in the Atlantic.

We used to depart from Anzio all the way to the Strait of Gibraltar, to fish for cuttlefish. I've even been to Mauritania, Senegal, and down to South Africa, always for fishing.

According to Lorenzo, fishing has become more challenging these days, with fewer fish and the profession becoming increasingly complex. Like many other fishermen, he has encountered empty or sunken small boats at the water's surface, often causing damage.

My son has a fishing boat, and he's always had issues with these semi-sunken small boats. You can avoid rocks, but these small boats cause damage. You lose a day's work, you lose everything, and no one compensates for it.

Similarly, two other fishermen at the port share  their experiences.

Once, we collided with a piece of boat barely visible at the water's surface at 10 PM. It was pushing our fishing boat underwater, with a strong southwesterly wind. We had to pay around 20 to 30 thousand euros for the damages, and we also have a lawyer involved to solve that.

Wooden boat left nearby Cala Madonna. February 2024
Wooden boat left nearby Cala Madonna. February 2024

Another fisherman, Domenico (pseudonym), tells me that sunken boats can sometimes be identified under certain conditions.

Fishing boats have sonar to check the seabed. When there are small boats, they can't be recognized. For example, large Tunisian fishing vessels can be identified even at depths of 150/200 meters, but smaller boats are not distinguishable.

In some cases, fishermen deliberately search for wrecks that attract fish.

When we go to where there are sunken boats or reefs, we expect to find a lot of fish. I know a spot about 3.5 miles west from the island where there's a boat sunk in the '90s. Once I went there and caught a lot of fish with fishing lines. We catch dentex, amberjack. For fish, boats are like reefs; they attract things that fish eat. However, if you fish with a trawl net, encountering a reef or a sunken boat can cause the net to break, and the fish escape.

Domenico also explains another fishing method using nets that do not touch the seabed, called "cianciolo" or "encircling net".

The boat releases a part of the net and circles around the fishing point. This is bluefin fishing: we catch anchovies, garfish, horse mackerel, and mackerel. When the net is closed, it reaches about 3-4 meters from the bottom. The fish inside cannot escape, and then we pull the net onto the boat with a winch and place the fish in tanks. The mesh of the net used for this fishing is very small. The net forms a kind of bag that traps the fish. This type of fishing does not touch the bottom, so there is no risk of getting entangled with wrecks.

Wooden boat abandoned in the west Coast. March 2024
Wooden boat abandoned in the west Coast. March 2024

The waters and shores around Lampedusa are filled with boats of all kinds. The large wrecks sunk during the World Wars in the Sicilian Channel are an important resource for local fishing. However, smaller boats, especially those made of wood, which have more recently washed up on the Pelagie Islands, often only cause damage to local fishermen. These types of abandoned boats over time can resurface from the seabed and end up stranded on the shores. On the other hand, iron boats, infamously known for their fragility, they're made of welded metal sheets, once sunk, they could remain on the seafloor longer, potentially serving as a habitat for corals and algae that fish depend on.

Despite this not being a recent problem, all fishermen emphasize how law enforcement authorities and institutions are unable to manage this phenomenon.

Patrol boats abandon the small boats when they seize them, so they drift and no one knows where they go. They should mark the point where they find them so that fishing boats know where they are.

Fishermen are well acquainted with the fishing zones around the island. Therefore, if during an outing they snag their net on a new obstacle, it's highly likely to be a recently sunken small boat.

Another episode recounted by local fishermen highlights how using the Favaloro pier as a landing point for people on the move arriving from the sea once again demonstrates the incapacity to manage a phenomenon that has now been ongoing for the past 30 years.

Once, all the boats brought back by the patrol boats to the pier broke loose and started drifting freely throughout the harbor, causing serious damage to all the boats present.

Among the proposals of the fishermen to solve this problem is one from Giacomo, who suggests reducing the bureaucratic process.

I've been going to sea for 42 years. Instead of immediately moving these drifting boats, they wait to process paperwork and then move them. It should be the opposite. If you ask the coast guard for explanations, they say it's not their responsibility, neither is it the ADM*, and so on.

The management of abandoned small boats poses a significant burden for fishermen and the local community, particularly due to the cost of their disposal. Therefore, it would be necessary to implement an intervention that considers the potential use of sunken boats as rich biodiversity sites. Simultaneously, establishing a service for locating and reporting drifting boats would help prevent substantial damage to fishermen and their vessels (1).

(*Agenzia Dogane e dei Monopoli is the Italian Customs and Monopolies Agency.)