Before speaking about the Tonnare, we have to clarify their history and the migration of tuna. In the Mediterranean Sea we find different species of tuna, like: albacore, little tuna and the famous bluefin tuna. The last one does two migrations every year, during spring it enters from the Atlantic Ocean in the Mediterranean Sea through the Strict of Gibraltar to fertilize its eggs (“bottarga”), just because the the level of saltiness and the temperature of water are perfect for this. At the end of the summer it does the same migration, but back to front from the Mediterranean Sea to the cold water of the Atlantic Ocean. Tuna has done this kind of migration for centuries now, so ever since the phoenicians and the greeks man has invented the Tonnara. In Sicily we can distinguish “Tonnare di andata” and “Tonnare di ritorno”. The “Tonnare di andata” that are situated in the north of Sicily (Favignana, San Vito lo Capo and so on) catched all the tuna that came from the Atlantic Ocean in between May and July. This tuna was called “tonno di andata”, which was very slow because it had to fertilize its eggs, more fat and full of “bottarga”. On June 12th, during Sant’Antonio day, the old “tonnaroti” (tuna fishermen) said that the tuna “rolled its eyes” (“furriava lu occhiu”): it meant that tuna migration made its last stop in the South-East of Sicily going through Messina, and it was called “tonno di ritorno” because then it went back to the Atlantic Ocean from the end of June to the end of August.
All of the “Tonnare di ritorno” are located in the south-east of Sicily. With “Tonnara” we mean basically two things: the nets that were put into the sea for 3 months and the buildings in the land. In the “tonnare di ritorno” the net was put underwater in June. They were constituted by three chambers 1 mile away from the coast: the big chamber, the small chamber and the chamber of death. The first two chambers were useful so that tuna got used to the tight space of the nets, while in the last one the nets catched the tuna. A “pedal” was attached to the chamber of death, it was a great net anchored to the sea bottom that stayed at the surface thanks to some pieces of cork. The tuna, that came from the north to Marzamemi, followed this pedal because it believed it was the coast, also because it has a lacking eyesight. Following the pedal, it entered the big chamber and the small chamber and then, making some swirling rotations, it entered the chamber of death.
Here we find the “scieri”, which are 20mt long boats. They were called “scieri capo rais” where there was the “rais”, the chief of the slaughter, and “scieri di levata” where there was the fishermen that had to pull up the nets. When the rais looked at the chamber of death and realized that there was a lot of tuna, he said “levata!”. To that scream, the fishermen in the “scieri di levata” begun to pull up the nets while singing a song that was called “Cialoma”, so that all of them followed the same rhythm. The tunas were then harpooned, put on the boats and the fishermen used some flags to communicate the number of fish that they had fished. Once in the “tonnara” (in the land), the tuna was delivered to another building called “camperia”, hanger or wood, it was butched, the head was cut off and it was hung up so that it could bleed. All of the innards were dried out; tuna is in fact called “the pork of the ocean” because no parts are thrown away. In the past tuna was just cut into pieces and put into barrels of “tunnina” (tuna barrels), but then it was also boiled and conserves in oil.
- The old hamlet of Marzamemi is an old “tonnara” and today, thanks to its location, it has become a touristic destination. You can visit the old fishermen’s houses, now touristic places, and all of the little streets. The palace of the prince Nicola Nicolaci is now private and it’s used today as a location for various events and weddings. The old active part of the tonnara is still abandoned.
- Portopalo di Capo Passero was the last “tonnara di ritorno” because, due to its geographical location, tuna went from Portopalo to the Atlantic ocean again. It was one of the most important, ancient and rich in fish together with Marzamemi. It is now abandoned and located on a cliff overlooking the sea. The old warehouses in the Isola di Capo Passero were part of the tonnara too and they were used to deposit the nets and the boats. This tonnara has a beautiful view and is located right in front of the sea.
- From Marzamemi towards north we can find the tonnara of Vendicari. Influenced by the other tonnare in the area, more efficient and facilitated by a better environmental background, it suffered some periods of scarcity and closure in 1800. The tuna fishing in Vendicari stopped after the landing of the allied during World War Second, even though the activity had already slowed down in the previous years. Today the ruins of this old 100mt long building, the pillars that supported the roof, the big chimney stack and the fishermen’s houses have been renovated and given back to the community. The tonnara has become the symbol of Vendicari, a big and fascinating structure that dominate the central part of the reserve.
- The tonnara of Avola is located in the ancient hamlet of Marina d’Avola at the end of the “Antonio d’Agata” street. The structure of about 5000 square meter is composed of various warehouses and hangars for the custody, the conservation and the producing of the fish around a central loggia. The complex also had a church with a single nave from the end of 700. Today the tonnara hosts a little nautical club and is well preserved.
- The tonnara of Terrauzza is composed of an eighteenth century building with a single body, which is different than the usual tonnara, that was appropriate to serve a small fishing company that didn’t need any other building. Today the ruins of the structure are still there and, though a bit ruined, is one of the most beautiful of the south-east of Sicily.