Where the Tyrrhenian and the Ionian meet, creating gushing currents and intense blue hues lies the complex eco system that is the Strait of Messina. Lying between Messina Sicily and Reggio Calabria, this body of water is teaming with watercraft of all sorts. From a shipping lane for huge container ships and tankers, to pleasure craft and sail boat competitions, there is no shortage of marine activity. Wooden brightly painted fishing boats line the shores on both sides and remind us of a time when the fishing in this area was plentiful. And from May to August every year, a strange figure appears that scours up and down the coast, these are the passarelle.
The method of hunting the swordfish using passerelle, the strange boats that seem to hover over the water, is really no more than an updated version of an ancient method, used by the Phoenicians who traded the length and breadth of the Mediterranean, hundreds of years before the time of Christ.
Whereas most other fish are not seen until they are caught, either by hook or by net, the swordfish hunt doesn’t begin until the fish is sighted. It is much closer to an animal hunt on land than it is to what one normally thinks of as fishing.
The hunt begins with the ‘spotter’, whose job it is to identify the presence of the swordfish, either from a direct sighting or a change in the surface of the water. Originally, the spotter would have been situated on rocks or hills above the coast, relaying sighting information, either by shouting set, traditional phrases, or waving flags, to crews waiting in the boats below.
The boats originally used were narrow, tapered, wooden rowing boats, painted black underneath so as not to be visible to the fish. They were manned by a crew of six: four rowers, a spotter and a harpoonist. In the centre of the boat there was a wooden pole or mast , about 3.5 metres high, with foot and arm rests. From the top of the mast. the spotter would guide the rowers to the prey – which, from that height, would be visible for only about 30 metres. As he did so, he would be giving rythm to the strokes of the rowers by loud and insistent chanting. Meanwhile, at the the bow, the harpooner would be standing ready for action.
Once harpooned, the fish would be given a lot of line and, with it, a temporary illusion of freedom. Finally, weakened from the struggle and loss of blood, it would be hauled into the boat. There, again following an ancient tradition, one of the fishermen would make four crosses with his fingernail just above the eye of the fish, and cut out the block of flesh surrounding the harpoon wound and this would be given to the harpoonist.
In recent years, this wooden boat has morphed into a big hunting machine, the passarella, powered by a diesel motor. While in principle the method hasn’t changed, it is obviously now much more sophisticated. At the centre of the boat there is a large metal frame or tower, usually about 30 metres high, with an iron cage at the top. The spotter in these boats has two roles: he both sights the fish and pilots the boat, making the chase much more accurate and effective. Extending 45 metres out from the front of the boat is another long, light iron bridge, known as the passarella; here, the harpooner takes his position. Because he is able to position himself directly above the fish, it is much easier than it used to be for him to aim the harpoon accurately – also, because the passarella extends so far from the boat, the fish does not hear the motor and is caught unawares.
The sight of the passarelle making their way up and down this ancient coastline is captivating: you really do feel you are witnessing an ancient, but living, tradition. And to some extent you are, but only some aspects of the ancient tradition have remained. For centuries the hunt of the swordfish was a duel, with man and animal fairly evenly matched. Even having developed special hunting methods and boats, the fishermen very often returned home empty-handed. Gradually, over the centuries that has changed. The development of the sophisticated passarelle would probably have been enough, but there has also been the introduction of indiscriminate fishing with longlines and nets. And, inevitably, the fishermen themselves have changed. Many locals will tell you that their mentality is now commercial and entrepreneurial, that they no longer have the respect for the sea that their fathers and grandfathers had. Today they fish up and down the coast catching what they can, without regard for the sea’s capacity to regenerate.
It seems the swordfish doesn’t stand much chance any more.