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On emptying seas, a vanishing way of life

Overfishing on the Mediterranean is threatening artisanal fishermen and endangering more than 100 marine species.

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"When there's a fire in the woods ... everyone is upset and goes and stops it. In the sea, it's like there's been a fire forever, but no one does a thing," says Mr. Usai.

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A solution: marine parks

One solution to overfishing that is increasingly being considered by environmental groups and even fishing groups like Legapesca is the creation of marine parks. Those would ban or severely limit fishing. A pilot project near Cabras to create a protected area for lobsters to breed has had some success, says Usai.

But while there's general agreement that Mediterranean fishing needs to be curtailed, attempts to do so have sputtered in the region's unique political and biological environment. In part because of the sea's rich biodiversity, the vast majority of fishing here does not target specific species. With the exception of a few boats that focus on high-value fish, like bluefin tuna and swordfish, most fishermen scoop up whatever their nets happen to catch. This makes conservation techniques used elsewhere, such as catch quotas, largely ineffective.

And with 21 countries, plus the Palestinian territories, bordering the sea and sharing its resources, political agreements can be hard to arrive at.

"The particular thing about the Mediterranean is that most of the waters are international waters," says Susanna St. Trappa, a fisheries expert with World Wildlife Fund (WWF). "Every solution must come with consensus and to reach consensus with 21 countries is a very big task."

International efforts to curtail overfishing

The General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean, established under the United Nations, serves as a forum for cooperation on fisheries issues. Environmental groups credit it with becoming more aggressive in recent years about brokering agreements – such as a 2005 ban on bottom trawling in waters deeper than 3,000 feet. In addition, the European Union now bans the practice close to shore in waters less than 150 feet deep.

And there is a general consensus about what the root of the problem is: overcapacity. Although there are fierce debates about how to measure it, the EU estimates that its fishing capacity in all its waters, including the Mediterranean, is 40 percent higher than is sustainable.

But efforts to reduce capacity have failed, or in some cases backfired. On the northern shore – there's little data from the south – the total number of European boats fishing the Mediterranean has decreased. But environmental groups say that EU subsidies intended to help fishermen modernize their fleet enabled many to upgrade from small boats like Pisanu's 33-ft. Nina, which he inherited from his father, to bigger, more environmentally damaging vessels. In Cabras, for example, local fishing organizations say subsidies helped fishermen purchase many of the devastatingly efficient trawlers based there.

In Italy – which has the largest fishing industry in the Mediterranean – trawlers make up only a small percentage of the fishing fleet, but account for more than half of catches. But bottom trawling churns up the sea floor, destroying vital habitat for many bottom-dwelling species, and is among the most wasteful forms of fishing. Although estimates vary widely, up to 70 percent of the fish caught by bottom trawlers are thrown back because they are the wrong type.

Legally, trawlers shouldn't be fishing the same waters as Pisanu. Artisanal fishermen still own and operate two-thirds of the region's boats but are rapidly being outfished by bigger, more technologically advanced boats.

But Usai says enforcement is difficult because few fishermen, even environmentally conscious ones, are completely compliant with current laws. It's hard, he admits, to ask authorities to enforce regulations only against big boats.

But if nothing changes, small fishermen like Pisanu say their life on the sea is threatened. "It's my passion," he says. "But I can't really say if I'll be fishing in 20 years."