National Geographic : 1955 Jan
The National Geographic Magazine As I watched, a head and a powerful whiff of tobacco entered my sail tent. "Pretty, eh?" said the head. "That big one'll go better than 700 pounds. Why don't they break out? Ha, they could if they tried; the netting's only thin coconut fiber! But-" the fisherman chuckled-"right now the tuna are foolish, because they are in love. It doesn't occur to a lovesick tuna to try to break out of a net; no, he swims patiently round and round, like a sheep." The sea is 100 feet deep at this point, and the tuna would sometimes sink so deep as they circled that they became ghostly yellow-green outlines in the cobalt depths. Another boat had moved up to the entrance to the next chamber. With a boat hook a man lifted the netting door. Broken Crockery Lures Tuna A fisherman at the open gate threw bits of broken white crockery in the water. As they sank, the shards fluttered like falling leaves, and their surfaces sent moons of white light glancing through the water. Eventually a curious tuna would go to investigate, then swim through the gate. When the great fish came close to my win dow, I could see marks of bites they had given each other, the fishermen said, in amor ous excitement. Suddenly I saw them stream toward the gate, head to tail, in one swift movement. Like sheep, they had all followed the leader. The netting was pulled up be hind them, and we settled to wait patiently for them to move into the next chamber and then, finally, into the fatal last chamber. When they were all in and the gate had been closed, the black vascello, biggest boat of all, moved in. Only the rais's boat remained in side the closed rectangle. The net on three sides of the rectangle had already been hauled to take up slack from the "body," or net floor. Now the vascello men, standing on broad gunwales, began to pull the flooring up from its 100-foot depth. They pulled anyhow at first; then, as the heaviest netting neared the top, they began a chantey, swaying and hauling in unison like a corps de ballet. They chanted in Sicilian mixed with Arabic: E' San Petru piscaturi Aia mola! Aia mola! The rectangle of sea, sheltered by the black hulls and the crowded fishermen, remained green and calm at first. As the net floor came closer to the surface, black shapes darted about in panic, tail fins cut the water, and a shout rose from the men. Then pande monium broke loose. The beating tails of charging fish sent foun tains of spray into the air, and the water boiled as they hurled themselves at the net ting walls. But this part of the net was made of heavy rope, and their effort was useless. The fish churned madly as the men fastened off the net and picked up hooked poles. With shouts and imprecations they stabbed at the mass of churning fish, two or three hooking into the same torpedo body. As many as six men would take hold of one 600-pound tuna to pull the monster over the gunwale. There would come a point when the water no longer buoyed up the great weight and the giant fish was poised halfway, when the group seemed frozen as in a tableau. Suddenly the men would give one more con certed heave, and the fish would tip and slide headfirst into the boat as the men bent like sheaves of wheat on each side, away from the thrashing tail that was capable of crushing a skull with one blow (pages 10-11). As the heavy vascello filled with the thrash ing fish, it trembled with the vibration of the monsters. The sea reddened with blood. Spray spouted into the air, and the men, maddened by the primitive struggle, yelled, shouted, and cursed. One by one the fish came into the boat and the tumult died down, until a small lone tuna, which had been ceaselessly circling his prison, was harpooned and boated. Fishermen Give Thanks for Catch Then, as suddenly as the uproar had begun, there fell a dead silence. The fishermen, standing on the gunwales in their wet and bloodstained clothes, removed their caps and bowed their heads, thanking God for sending them once more the harvest of the sea. The net floor was unfastened and allowed to sink slowly to the bottom; the boats formed once more in line and were taken in tow. I rode in the vascello with the 88 tuna. The sea was strangely quiet and peaceful after the noise and excitement of the last half hour. As we came into harbor, three fishing ves sels hoisted rust-red sails and moved slowly out to sea to take up their positions for the night's work. The cycle of fishing, like that of life itself, goes endlessly on in Sicily.