This is a very long delayed post about the swordfish hunting boats that we saw while passing through the Straits of Messina in late July. When I first saw one of these boats I had no idea what they were, but Deb knew and told me that they were specialized boats built to hunt Swordfish (via harpoon) in the Straits, and that in one way or another people had been doing this for over 2,000 years!!
The Straits of Messina is a very narrow stretch of water that separates Sicily from mainland Italy – just over a mile wide in parts. In the Straits, two seas, the Tyrrhenian and the Ionian, meet, creating intense tidal currents and natural whirlpools, and supporting a unique and rich marine ecosystem. It’s also an important migratory route for fish (tuna, swordfish, whales and dolphins moving from deep ocean waters to mate in the warmer shallower waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea).
As we passed through, we saw very strange looking boats moving up and down the coast. Many of them. These are the passarelle, boats specifically designed for hunting swordfish, part of an ancient tradition.
The swordfish is known in this area as ‘the Emperor of the Straits’, typically weighs about 50lbs, is about two metres long, and can travel through the water at speeds of up to 50mph. The swordfish spends much of its life in deep ocean waters, coming to the warmer shallower waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea only in the Spring to mate. Male and female often travel in pairs – and that is how the fishermen like to find them. The female is usually the larger of the two and it is she they target first. They know that once she has been harpooned, the male will do everything he can to free her. He will not leave the scene. As a result, he becomes a very easy target. The female, on the other hand, disappears at the first sign of danger. It’s not at all surprising that popular Italian songs have been written about the male swordfish: it’s a romantic story. And it’s not surprising that no songs have been written about the female. The theory is that she is acting in response to an instinct to save her young. It’s a nice theory, but it could simply be that she is less noble than the male!
The method of hunting the swordfish using passerelle, 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.
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.
The boats originally used were narrow, wooden rowing boats, painted black underneath so as not to be visible to the fish. (maybe our white bottom is why I never catch any fish??) They were manned by a crew of six: four rowers, a spotter and a harpoonist.
In recent years, this wooden boat has morphed into a big hunting machine, the passarella, powered by a diesel motor. While the method hasn’t changed, it is obviously now much more sophisticated. At the centre of todays boats 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.