Despite attentive regulations, fish markets across Europe are more fully stocked than ever, creating a false sense of abundance in the minds of consumers
The false belief that the sea is as full of life as it once was
The Venetian lagoon has a longstanding history of sustaining Venice – one of Italy’s four Maritime Republics. Venice’s fate has always been symbiotically tied with the state of the lagoon. Today this fragile balance is threatened in a number of ways. Environmental pollution and overfishing are jeopardizing local species. At the same time rising sea levels endanger the survival of the city which may one day be swallowed by the waves.
Lagoon is an easier environment to monitor compared to the sea. This is due to their limited size, and data such as the quantities of different species of fish and the state of the ecosystem’s general health are more easily discernible. Academic studies document some of the most recent issues in the lagoon. These range from the disappearance of the local species of clam in favor of the more lucrative and large Tapes Phippinarum – a variety from the Philippines – to the high levels of pollution recorded in the waters.
The lack of exact data on the state of global fisheries
It is not just academia that is interested in the changes of the Venetian lagoon. Long-time residents have observed the decline with their own eyes, and are worried about the future. Mediterranean fish stocks are plummeting – an observable fact backed by the stringent European-level legislation that regulates this precious and fragile resource. Total fishing bans are becoming longer and more frequent, and harmful types of fishing – such as bottom trawling – are highly restricted, displaying the need to protect dwindling fish numbers.
Despite these attentive regulations, fish markets across Europe are more fully stocked than ever, creating a false sense of abundance in the minds of consumers. Modern technologies, such as the satellite mapping of rainforests, facilitate the surveillance and protection of land resources while, at present, this is impossible to do underwater. Due to our lack of exact data on the state of global fisheries, it is easy to continue believing that the sea is as full of life as it once was. But this way of thinking does not take into consideration the developments of modern fishing technologies, and our lack of respect for nature’s cycles.
Topic one – the perceived abundance of the ocean
A statistic from the United Nations special envoy on oceans came out in 2018. Stating that ninety percent of commonly consumed fish populations will have disappeared by the year 2050. Pollution is not helping the ocean and its fish stocks. However the leading cause of diminishing fish populations worldwide is the fact that we are actively taking fish out of the sea at an astounding rate. It should be obvious at this point that overfishing is one of, if not the leading cause of crashing fish populations. Humans have depended on fishing for thousands of years and fish stocks have never collapsed before. But this is because in the past fishing was radically different. Historically, the fight between man and fish was more equitable.
Intensive fishing methods did not exist, and people tended to take only what they needed as commerce was limited due to lack of refrigeration. Cities far from the sea did not habitually consume fish. Also fishing gear was less reliable and specialized than it is today. Modern technologies have shifted this balance. We are using military type vessels with sonar, radar, and ex-military technology for tracking down every last fish. The fact that the fishing industry is subsidized by billions of euros every year does not help. These changes mean that we can harvest more fish with less and less effort. The sale of fish across the globe has transformed fishing into a lucrative business, rather than a way to source food locally. Countries buy and sell fish across borders and globalization has normalized the consumption of specific traditional dishes around the world.
Topic two – voices from the Venetian lagoon
Sergio and Maurizio have been fishing in the Lagoon for forty-five and sixty years respectively, and are troubled with the changes they have witnessed. When asked about current quantities of fish in the lagoon Sergio says: «There are less fish nowadays. We used to catch fish that weighed five or six kilograms, now we catch fish that weigh half a kilogram at most. There are still some fish, although there aren’t many. It is because of the pollution in the lagoon. Intensive fishing also plays its part. Industrial fishermen from Chioggia are not fishermen; they are pirates. They have destroyed everything. Here in Venice, there are rock formations called tenué».
«Mother nature took over 50,000 years to create them. Fishermen from Chioggia have systematically destroyed them to catch more fish. What they don’t realize is that this is the habitat where the fish go to lay their eggs, where they go to reproduce. To destroy the rocks, they use ramponi which are rectangular iron structures with a net fixed to one side».
«The lower part is equipped with curved teeth that penetrate the seabed, remove material and put it into a bag. Ramponi are worse than bombs because bombs explode on the surface, while ramponi destroy the seabed, the mud, everything. Imagine a ploughed field: that is what the lagoon floor looks like after they use ramponi. Nobody says anything because they are more than three nautical miles from the coast, so it’s legal. At night, they come very close to shore to fish. They have fished everything. There is nothing left».
Lagoon species are disappearing
Lagoons are seasonal ecosystems where fish come to reproduce or feed before swimming back out to sea. Destroying their mating grounds is a disaster, both for sedentary lagoon species and migratory ones. The sedentary species of the Venetian lagoon are a number of smaller. Often non-commercial species that help maintain the overall health of the ecosystem. Sergio and Maurizio have observed that these species are disappearing too, and claim that large quantities of these are destined to be crushed into fish-feed and fish-meal for aquaculture.
Sergio says: «There used to be rock prawns in the lagoon, they no longer exist. We used to catch them right here, now there are none, disappeared, extinct. They take them and grind them up for fish feed, or they get used by restaurants as fried appetizers». Maurizio adds: «Many years ago, when you came to the lagoon you could walk over mullets, common mullets, there were so many. Billions of them. Now they have also disappeared. I’m convinced they are all gone because they use them to make fish meals for fish farms. Now there are hardly any mullets left».
Topic three – fish stocks are decreasing Mercato di Rialto in Venice
The disappearance of local species, destined to be crushed up into feed for aquaculture, calls attention to the sad changes these veteran fishermen have noticed and bore witness to over the years. European legislations and direct observers of the changes in the lagoon seem to point to the same conclusion. Fish stocks are decreasing, both at sea and in protected environments such as the lagoon. When you visit the most famous fish market in Venice, the Mercato di Rialto, this is not at all apparent. Fish stalls are piled high with fish sold as ‘fresh’ and ‘local‘, creating a false sense of abundance in the eyes of the consumer.
After visiting the market numerous times, I made friends with a sixty-five-year-old stall owner who confided in me, saying that things are not as they seem: «At the Rialto fish market, we don’t sell fish we have caught. We sell fish that we buy at the Tronchetto wholesale market. At Tronchetto, you can find small-scale fishermen, industrial fishermen, and wholesale resellers. They had to move the market from Rialto to Tronchetto because it is closer to the airport and that makes it easier for international retailers from Holland, Denmark and Spain». Rialto is where most restaurants and individuals shop, while few people know about or have ever been to Tronchetto.
The reputation of Tronchetto market
Giovanni, a chef working in Venice with fifteen years of experience in cooking and buying fish for the restaurant where he works tells. «I buy fish for the restaurant at Rialto. I know the Tronchetto market by reputation, but I’ve never been there. You can’t go there if you don’t work there, and you need a special permit to prove it. It’s not a normal market where you can go and buy fish».
«You need to apply for a pass as a wholesale buyer or seller; provide documents and credit card numbers to be allowed in. Tronchetto is on the outskirts of Venice. It is an easier location for products arriving via truck or plane. But did you know that all the best fish arrive in Milan? The frozen and thawed ones arrive there, because the airport is bigger and more money circulates there. Basically, you can find fresher fish in Milan than in Chioggia».
Milan has fresher fish than Chioggia and Venice
Both men mention the location of Tronchetto: its proximity to the airport makes it easier to transport fish, but why would ‘fresh’ and ‘local’ fish arrive at the market via air-travel? How can Milan, with no access to the sea, have fresher fish than Chioggia or Venice? We try to visit Tronchetto. Due to high levels of security, we are not able to access the inside area of the market where business takes place. We are stationed next to the rear door where all goods exit the market on their way to their respective destinations. From here, it is possible to observe the thousands of crates leaving the building. Almost all have tags and printed names of international aquaculture enterprises on them: Culmarex from Spain, Moscuzza from Argentina, Leroy Seafood from Norway, just to name a few.
Topic four – Tronchetto in Venice does not sell local fish anymore
Two young resellers who buy at Tronchetto and sell at Rialto open up. «Tronchetto does not sell local fish anymore. It’s just farmed fish and some wild-caught fish from abroad, but not local species». A thirty year old wholesale buyer and seller confirms this view.
«Here, it’s mostly farmed fish. Do you see that name printed on that crate? It says ‘Atlantic’, that’s the name of a fish-farm. People come from all over the world to sell fish here. Do you see those? Those are Palombo sharks, they come from abroad. Chioggia’s market is better than Tronchetto. It used to only sell fish from the area, but now they too have started importing fish from abroad. I make a lot of money here. up to 5,000 euros a day in cash. I don’t use vans to move them, I use large trucks: my family is one of the largest wholesale dealers in this market».
Aquaculture fish production
Palombo sharks are heavily overfished and are listed as an endangered species. It is the most commonly caught shark in the world; Italy is the fourth largest importer, after Spain, South Korea and Hong Kong. Clearly far from being ‘fresh’, most products sold at Tronchetto are farmed, frozen and imported from abroad. However most consumers have no idea, and sellers go to great lengths to hide the truth.
The direct testimonies collected from Tronchetto are confirmed by data published by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations in their online document. The state of the World fisheries and Aquaculture 2020. Due to the global pandemic, many numbers cited in the document come from 2018. However the trends are clear: in 2018, aquaculture fish production reached an all-time high; producing 114.5 million tonnes of fish with a total value of 263.3 billion U.S. dollars. In the same year, wild-caught captures reached 96.4 million tonnes. Of these, the most popular fish to be captured were anchovies; with a total of 7 million tons – almost ten percent of wild-caught fish.
The numbers speak clearly: farmed fish are more abundant than wild caught ones
The most popular species of captured fish are anchovies from Peru and Chile. According to a paper published by the United Nations entitled The role of anchovies and sardines as reduction fisheries in the world fish-meal production; these species are used to create fish oil and fish meal destined to aquaculture enterprises across the globe, rather than for human consumption. Similar to the fate of the mullets and rock prawns being removed from the lagoon; anchovies are destined to be crushed up into fish-feed for the increasing numbers of farmed fish.
In line with these trends, a majority of the products sold at Tronchetto are farmed fish. However a lot of effort is employed to hide this reality. Access is restricted. Photography is forbidden and high levels of security are in place to assure these measures are respected. Resellers at Rialto claim their fish are ‘fresh’ and ‘local’. They do not divulge the fact that they are reselling products acquired at Tronchetto.
The thirty year old wholesale buyer and seller confirms the aura of secrecy employed by the Venetian wholesale market. «Buying and selling fish is a private business, very private. They don’t just let people in here, you need to be a verified wholesale buyer or seller. Nobody from the public is allowed inside. Many of the crates you see leaving the market are destined to Rialto, they transport them there via boat. All fish sold at Rialto comes from here».
Venice Tronchetto market’s commercial value and marketability
This aura of secrecy regarding the provenance of the fish sold from Tronchetto to Rialto; the desire to hide the fact that most fish being sold are farmed, is linked to its commercial value and marketability. It is a marketing move to call fish a ‘fresh’ or ‘sustainable’. These words are used to hide the reality behind the product and make it more easy to sell. Fish products often come from across the planet and can be frozen for weeks, months. Sometimes years on end, to sell at a later date.
In terms of economic value, ‘fresh’, ‘local’ and ‘sustainable’ fish can be sold at higher prices. They are also more sought after by the public due to their higher quality compared to farmed or frozen fish. This is especially true in Italy, where there is high attention to detail in terms of food sourcing and preparation. Very few people would buy a fish if they knew it had passed through farmed, frozen, and imported across the globe. Furthermore, selling farmed fish as if it were wild-caught helps maintain the illusion of abundance of marine resources. When in actuality ninety percent of marine fisheries are overfished or depleted. This deception is easy because many popular local species, such as orate or sea-bream, are farmed in abundance in countries like Croatia, Greece and Spain; making it difficult for consumers to tell whether the products are local or farmed.
Topic five – the role of consumers they ask for non local fish
Giovanni works as a chef in a high-end traditional restaurant in Venice, where they pay meticulous attention to these kinds of details and they try to only source species know to be local. «We try to only serve dishes that include fish that is native to the Adriatic sea. Because of this we don’t serve salmon or sword fish. We need to have some non-local species, because clients ask for them. They know us for our tuna tataki. We tried taking it off the menu to serve more sustainable fish. But clients were asking for it so we had to put it back on the menu».
Demonstrating that the public’s substantial appetite for seafood, which is partly responsible for driving this billion-dollar business; it is not just out of fondness for this kind of food, but the status attached to consuming it that is driving the market. The thirty-year-old wholesale buyer and seller from Tronchetto says: «I’m from Padova and four years ago I opened the first Oyster and Champagne bar in Padova. It’s successful. I think, in part, because in Padova people like to spend money on things they can’t afford, that are cool. It’s a sort of perversion to buy expensive things». Giovanni has observed similar trends: «In the past fifteen years eating raw fish has become a super trend. Everyone wants to eat raw fish. People want tartare, raw scampi, all-you-can-eat sushi. They want it because it gives them status».
This excessive consumption of marine life
Consumers tend to perceive the sea as infinitely abundant. For marketing purposes sellers are inclined to hide a fact. That most of the fish we consume has been farmed and frozen to be transported; fueling these erroneous perceptions. Sadly, most people do not know the reality of the fish-business and consume seafood products without a second thought. This excessive consumption of marine life can be linked to food-fashions. Here consuming raw fish equates to status and wealth. Giovanni is aware of the effects fish consumption is having on marine environments.
«If you’re young, you cannot avoid raising the question of how our diets affect the planet. If you plan on having a family in the future, what kind of world do you want to raise your children in? The world your child will grow up in, will reflect the responsibilities and sacrifices you have taken on yourself during your lifetime. Things like wearing an extra sweater rather than turning up the heating; or avoiding food like tuna or steak and eating vegetables instead, are a matter of personal responsibility and awareness. Nobody wants to make sacrifices on their own. Food-fashions and social media make these sacrifices harder. Nowadays there are food fads circulating online, if you don’t post a photo with raw seafood in summer, who are you?».
Our insatiable appetite for seafood
The term ‘sustainable’ is often used to describe the method of capture of wild-caught fish. However a graph presented by FAO in the fisheries section speaks clearly. While in 1974, ten percent of marine resources were classified as overfished and thus unsustainable. By 2017, thirty-five percent of marine resources were caught unsustainably. Regardless of fish stocks rapidly diminishing, our insatiable appetite for seafood is pushing us to continue fishing incessantly without giving marine ecosystems time to replenish. Aquaculture is often proposed as a possible solution to easing the pressure on wild-caught stocks. However the most commonly captured species of fish are disappearing due to their overconsumption linked to the production of fish-meal. This is to say anchovies, as well as non-commercial species found in the Venetian lagoon –
Tronchetto Market, Venice
The tronchetto wholesale fish market of Venice is located on the island of Tronchetto. The position is strategic, within the lagoon of Venice. Easily accessible by sea, by land and from the international airport of Tessera; a few kilometers from the city center.