Home » Tonnare: Ancient Tuna Fisheries in Sicily & Beyond

Tonnare: Ancient Tuna Fisheries in Sicily & Beyond

By Greig Santos-Buch
Tonnare Ancient Tuna Fisheries in Sicily and Beyond

Tonnare in Sicily represent a crucial part of the island’s maritime heritage, reflecting an age-old tradition in tuna fishing. Far from being just simple structures, these ancient tuna fisheries embody a complex and time-honored method of catching and processing tuna, deeply ingrained in Sicilian history.

What Are “Tonnare”?

Ruins of an ancient tonnare facility found in the Vendicari Nature Reserve, Sicily, Italy.
Ruins of an ancient tonnare facility found in the Vendicari Nature Reserve, Sicily, Italy. Via Mauri Callari / Getty.

The term “tonnara” refers to both the specific fishing technique and the establishments where this activity takes place. This technique involves the creation of large net chambers in the sea, known as “chambers of death.” These nets are strategically arranged to guide and ensnare migrating tuna, especially during their breeding season in the late spring.

While once central to the economy and culture of coastal Sicily, many tonnare have ceased operation due to modern changes in fishing practices, environmental concerns, and declining tuna populations. However, several of these historical sites have been repurposed for tourism, offering visitors an opportunity to explore their rich historical and cultural significance.

“Tonnare” is Not Exclusive to Sicily

“Tonnare,” was not exclusive to Sicily in Italy. This technique has been widely used in various regions of Italy and across the Mediterranean. For instance, Sardinia, another significant Italian island, also has a history of employing tonnare. Like Sicily, various coastal towns in Sardinia developed their unique methods and structures for tuna fishing, integral to their local economies and cultural heritage.

In addition to Italy, other Mediterranean countries adopted similar fishing methods. Places like Spain and North African countries with access to the Mediterranean Sea have their versions of tonnare. While the basic principle of using net chambers to trap migrating tuna is common, the specifics of the construction, the fishing seasons, and the associated rituals can vary significantly from one region to another.

Can I Visit Tonnare in Italy or Elsewhere?

Yes, you can visit tonnare in Italy and other locations around the world, as many have been repurposed into tourist destinations, offering unique experiences like accommodations, restaurants, and museums.

Amazing panorama at the Tonnara di Scopello, province of Trapani, Sicily
Amazing panorama at the Tonnara di Scopello, province of Trapani, Sicily. Via e55evu / Getty.

In Sicily, the Tonnara di Scopello in the province of Trapani is a notable destination. This former tuna fishing complex, located just a couple of kilometers from Scopello’s main square, now serves as a sunbathing and swimming area. The site includes converted buildings, a church, a museum with original ships and fishing tools, and cozy apartments for accommodation​​.

Favignana's enchanting coastline
Favignana’s enchanting coast emerges gracefully from the Mediterranean’s blend of azure and turquoise waters, creating a picturesque seascape. Via iacona / Getty.

The Former Florio Tuna Fishery of Favignana, also in the province of Trapani, is another significant site. This old “di andata” tuna fishery, one of the largest in the Mediterranean, has been transformed into a museum with multimedia rooms and video testimonies related to the mattanza and tuna fishery. Additionally, there’s an antiquarium area with archaeological finds from the archipelago, providing a comprehensive look at the history of tuna fishing in the region​​.

Ristorante La Tonnara, located in Castellammare del Golfo, Sicily, is a highly regarded dining destination. We just visited and had an incredible experience trying a range of dishes and local wines while traversing the wine tasting route near Palermo. It offers a range of Italian, seafood, Mediterranean, Sicilian, and Southern-Italian cuisines, with special gluten-free options available. The restaurant is known for its quality, delicious, and fresh food served in a picturesque setting overlooking the harbor. With its focus on seafood, the menu features a variety of dishes prepared using fresh ingredients. This restaurant is celebrated for its quality seafood dishes and excellent service, making it a must-visit spot for food enthusiasts in the area​​.

Ancient Ruins of the Tonnara di Santa Panagia (Tuna Fishery) In Syracuse, Sicily, Italy
Ancient Ruins of the Tonnara di Santa Panagia (Tuna Fishery) In Syracuse, Sicily, Italy. Via Fausto Riolo / Getty.

The Tonnara di Santa Panagia, located near Syracuse, Sicily, is an intriguing site steeped in history. The site, active until the 1950s, includes buildings reconstructed in the 18th century post a devastating earthquake. Today, it stands as a ghost town, offering visitors a unique glimpse into the past. The tonnara features a “baglio” or courtyard where tuna were processed, and you can still see some original equipment. There’s also a small church, Oratorio di Santa Panagia, with historical frescoes. Although not a mainstream tourist attraction, it’s accessible by a dirt road from Syracuse, and offers a blend of natural beauty, history, and tranquility, making it a worthwhile visit for those seeking a unique experience in Sicily.

Ruins of the Tonnara di Vendicari
Ruins of the Tonnara di Vendicari. Via elifranssens / Getty.

In the Vendicari Reserve in eastern Sicily, Tonnara Beach is part of a protected area that offers splendid views and access to magnificent beaches. The reserve features the remains of the ancient Tonnara di Vendicari fishery, and the nearby Sveva Tower, a defensive structure from the 1400s. The reserve’s diverse landscape makes it an ideal spot for nature lovers and history enthusiasts alike​​.

Culinary Traditions and Tuna Dishes

A classic preparation is “Tonno alla Ghiotta,” a dish where the tuna is simmered in a tomato-based sauce with capers, olives, and herbs, reflecting the flavors of the region. Another popular recipe is “Insalata di Tonno,” a refreshing salad combining tuna with fresh vegetables, often dressed in olive oil and lemon juice. In Sicily, “Pasta con le Sarde” is a traditional dish where pasta is tossed with a flavorful combination of fresh tuna, wild fennel, pine nuts, and raisins, showcasing the island’s diverse culinary influences.

Wine Pairings with Tuna Dishes

The wine culture in regions with tonnare complements the tuna-based cuisine perfectly. The robust flavors of tuna dishes pair well with a variety of local wines. For instance, a dish like Tonno alla Ghiotta, with its rich tomato sauce, pairs beautifully with a full-bodied Sicilian Nero d’Avola, whose ripe fruit flavors and hints of spice enhance the savoriness of the tuna. For lighter tuna dishes, such as Insalata di Tonno, a crisp and refreshing Sicilian Grillo or a Vermentino from Sardinia can be an excellent choice. These white wines, with their bright acidity and citrus notes, balance the richness of the tuna and bring a fresh contrast to the palate. The key is to match the intensity of the wine with the richness of the dish, creating a harmonious dining experience that celebrates the regional flavors.

Related Articles

Leave a Comment

Share to...