Orbetello devastated

Orbetello devastated

It was an otherwise perfect summer in southern Tuscany. Endless days of sunshine and warm weather. Plenty of tourists, holidaymakers and food festivals to keep everyone busy.   And then, in the last week of July, the corpses of a thousand fish washed up on the shores of Orbetello Lagoon. &

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Thu 16 Jul 2015 12:00 AM

It was an otherwise perfect summer in southern Tuscany. Endless days of sunshine and warm weather. Plenty of tourists, holidaymakers and food festivals to keep everyone busy.

 

And then, in the last week of July, the corpses of a thousand fish washed up on the shores of Orbetello Lagoon.

 

Located about two hours from Florence, Orbetello has a fishing tradition that reaches as far back as the Roman Empire and an economy that depends on the sea bass, sea bream, mullet and eel fished from its lagoon.

 

Initial reports by the president of local fishing organisation Orbetello Pesca Lagunare, Pier Luigi Piro, estimated more than 200 tonnes of fish died overnight. In the days that followed, their corpses floated from the lagoon to the popular Feniglia and Alberese beaches, located more than 30km away.

 

Their deaths were attributed to a huge phenomenon of anoxia, or the complete absence of oxygen in the lagoon caused by a string of unceasingly hot days.

 

Marine biologist Mauro Lenzi told newspaper Il Tirreno that it happened so suddenly, nothing could have been done to prevent it.

 

But in the weeks since the incident, some are pointing the finger at the local government.

 

The Corpo forestale is currently investigating whether the local authorities were responsible for not periodically removing the excessive algae, which significantly drained the lagoon of its oxygen, sealing the fishes’ fate.

 

It’s a blow for the community. In under 12 hours, the lagoon’s 50 fishing families reported the loss of between 15 and 20 million euro of potential earnings.

 

Local fisherman Matia Grande says he’s seen blights on the lagoon before, but nothing like this.

 

“Usually you can expect a few tonnes of fish will die during the season. But never so many at once,” he says.

 

“No one saw it coming and even though time has passed, the town is still in shock.

 

“We may no longer be in all the newspapers, but we are still coming to grips with it. A lot of families depend on the lagoon and a lot of people will probably lose their jobs.”

 

The disaster is another setback in what has been a difficult three years for Orbetello. The town recorded more than 100 million euro of damages along with the neighbouring municipalities of Manciano and Capalbio following floods in 2012.  

 

The mayor of Orbetello, Monica Paffetti, has since called on the regional government to declare a state of natural disaster, as Orbetello Pesca Lagunare says it can’t survive financially beyond September unless outside assistance is provided.

 

And while the regional environment minister, Federica Fratoni, and the Maremma’s regional representative, Leonardo Marras, have both visited the town, relief funds are yet to be allocated.

 

As the local fishermen point out, their loss is more than the sum of the dead fish. Orbetello is one of only two areas in Italy to produce bottarga, a delicacy made from salt-cured mullet roe.

 

Without financial aid, Mr. Piro says the organisation can’t replenish their fish population. He says it will be more than 2 years before the sea bream are ready to be farmed, 3 to 4 years for the mullet and up to 8 to 9 years for the eel, a species that was already in sharp decline.

 

The dead fish have since been removed from the lagoon in a massive cleanup that took almost a week. But Orbetello local, Paola Galli, says the community has banded together.

 

“For days afterwards, the stench of rotting fish in the 30°C-plus heat was horrible.

 

“We’re still in mourning, but we’re doing all we can for the local fishermen. We’re working together to raise money through food festivals and other events and we invite visitors to support the cause by continuing to come and spend time in our town and our lagoon.”

 

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