La Mattanza

One of the Egadi Islands' most ancient traditions, the mattanza (ritual tuna slaughter) has come to a halt in recent years due to the ever-decreasing number of tuna swimming into local waters.

For centuries schools of bluefin tuna have used the waters around western Sicily as a mating ground. Locals can recall the golden days of the Egadis' fishing industry, when it was not uncommon to catch giant breeding tuna of between 200kg and 300kg. Fish that size are rare these days and the annual catch is increasingly smaller due to the worldwide commercial overfishing of tuna. Climate change also appears to have disrupted the tuna's normal breeding and migration cycle in recent years.

Traditionally, the mattanza occurred in late May or early June. Fishermen would organise their boats and nets in a complex formation designed to channel the tuna into a series of enclosures, which culminated in the camera della morte (chamber of death). Once enough tuna were imprisoned, the fishermen closed in and the mattanza began. It was a bloody affair – with up to eight or more fishermen at a time sinking huge hooks into a tuna and dragging it aboard. Anyone who has seen Rossellini's classic film Stromboli will no doubt recall the mattanza scene, one of the most famous accounts of this ancient tradition.

The number of tuna caught by this method was relatively small and sustainable – the fact that the mattanza took place for around 900 years without overfishing is testament to this. Problems arose with the increase in commercial fishing in the 1960s: tuna were caught year-round, and deep waters were exploited using long-line fishing and indiscriminate means such as drift and gill nets. Anything that passed by was caught, and thus the Mediterranean's fish resources were depleted. Despite the waning tuna population, La Mattanza was reinvented as a tourist attraction for several years, but even that was finally discontinued in 2007.

These days, fishing with drift nets is officially prohibited by the EU, and catches are subject to strict quotas, in the hope of reviving the tuna's fortunes.