Protecting octopuses so seals will return to Italy

Monday, 19 Sep, 2022

It’s time to share what has happened during the previous months; we can finally tell you how we made the biggest seizure of fishing gear ever made in Italy. Our story begins in Spring 2022: through agreements made with the Arcipelago Toscano National Park and the Guardia di Finanza of Tuscany, Sea Shepherd Italy began patrolling the park’s coastline to prevent poaching. 

Italy's Guardia Di Finanza with Sea Shepherd crew inspecting the confiscated fishing gear. Photo by Sea Shepherd.

The mission starts, as usual, months before the real action. We spend weeks and months investigating on land and at sea, undercover and invisible. We meet whistleblowers and informants, we identify boats, and we film the crew, fishing vessels and poachers. We draw up a meticulous survey to prepare for our sea operations.

From the start, a very common activity in that area caught our attention: the Tuscan coast is particularly devoted to octopus fishing. Local fishermen use the loathsome “pot” technique: a single nylon line equipped with hundreds of cylindrical traps open on one side. These devices are dropped parallel to the coast at different depths not exceeding 35 meters. They are made of cables up to 2 kilometers long, with black plastic pots attached at a distance of about 8 meters each. These pots, disguised on the muddy seabed, look like safe shelters for the octopuses, where they can live and lay eggs. The line which attaches the traps is also the perfect support for octopus and squid eggs, which they lay in thousands.

The fishermen just need to pull up the line and empty the pots each time they find their prey inside. Law limits the number of traps allowed on each boat (i.e. 1250 pots), and forbids leaving fishing gear resting on the seabed. It’s clear to us that the waters of the Tuscan archipelago are endangered, and that it’s crucial to study the compliance of these easily ignored laws along as much of the coastline as possible.

“The data we’ve collected so far with the technology on board the M/V Conrad are unsettling: there are way too many traps. We double-checked the numbers several times. We’re shocked. This is not commercial fishing, it’s more a slaughter of octopuses, squids, cuttlefishes and all benthos in the area.”

Andrea Morello, Sea Shepherd Italy campaign director.
A rescued octopus in a fishing pot. Photo by Sea Shepherd.

Day after day, what seemed to be a frightful assumption, turned out to be a terrible reality: we found an extensive network of illegal fishing, made up of tens of thousands traps laying on the seabed. The 40 kilometers of coastline we’ve been monitoring, patrolling along over 2,000 nautical miles, hide a horrifying secret: this is a real environmental disaster, among the most appalling ones Sea Shepherd Italy has ever encountered.

Thanks to the ongoing collaboration with the Financial Guard and the Coast Guard, after many meetings we managed to establish the most effective way to counteract the three main violations we witnessed:
- octopuses lured to the traps even during the biological rest period
- catches exceeding the allowed quotas
- fishing gear left on the seabed all year round

On the 5th of August Sea Shepherd Italy was finally given the green light from authorities to begin retrieving and removing all of the gear. Our boats are equipped with longline reels and the crew on board has been thoroughly trained. Unlike other rescue operations our team was used to carrying out, this time is different: the prey in the traps are alive! Considering this, we decided to bring along a marine biologist to help us evaluate, case by case, the safest and least harmful way to free the octopuses and let them return to the sea.

the M/Y Sea Eagle crew bagging up the confiscated traps.. Photo by Sea Shepherd.

The numbers of this operation are appalling: to date we have removed over 7672 pots from the sea, handing them over to the Financial Guard, in the largest seizure of octopus fishing traps ever in Mediterranean Sea. Thanks to this campaign we have already saved thousands of lives.

Octopuses, like any other edible species in our sea, suffer the impact of overfishing, which is emptying our oceans. Nearly 3,000 tons of octopuses are caught in Italy every year. Considering their average weight, we estimate a loss of hundreds of thousands of specimens every year. But considering also recreational and illegal fishing, the real amount is hard to guess. Owing to octopus biology, it’s also very hard to monitor their actual population, which has dropped locally and everywhere else as well, so much so that we can consider it an overfished species.

Another key element, crucial to those who care about marine biodiversity, is the unbreakable bond between octopus populations and the Monk Seal. To date, increasing sightings of the most endangered marine mammal seem to suggest that this wonderful animal is slowly returning to Italy’s waters, starting from the scattered population left between Greece and Turkey. They haven’t succeeded so far due to the loss of land habitats where they rest and breed, the anthropic disturbances, and the scarcity of food. Half of the Monk Seal diet consists of cephalopods: common octopuses and curled octopuses (Octopus vulgaris and Eledone cirrhosa). This is another good reason for Sea Shepherd to combat this nonsensical and indiscriminate fishing of this species.

By helping octopuses, we might help the Monk Seal as well, as it repopulates our waters. Sea Shepherd, through the newly launched “Monachus Campaign”, is focusing actions in the most suitable habitats for the seal to return in Italy, primarily the Arcipelago Toscano National Park.

If we stop illegal fishing during the biological rest period and fight against this unsustainable overfishing, we’ll play our part in the return of the Monk Seal in Italy.

Learn more about the importance of octopuses in the Mediterranean Sea and the threats they face from illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing: Of Mollusks and Monk Seals

Watch the campaign video below:

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