It all looked so familiar. Dry desert-like landscape decorated with the occasional round stone structures built by the Spanish in the 19th century. The blue turquoise waters peaked at you from almost everywhere, and wild artichokes and capers grew freely amongst dry shrub. For a moment I was back home in the Middle East in those long silent summers spent in the Sinai peninsula. The main town, the only town, was made of one wide boulevard, maybe 20 small streets, and a port. We kept driving down to the sea front passing nothing interesting or unique and some nothing at all. So often over the past couple of years we heard of the island Lampedusa: it’s the island were many African migrants arrive after a perilous journey through the sea, a thin stretch of rock in the middle of the Mediterranean, which is geographically actually much closer to the prior continent than it is to its mother nation, Italy.
The professor took a sharp turn under the sign “Porto Vecchio” and parked the car in front of Beppe’s boat. It was only then, when the broken dialect filled the salty air, that I remembered we were, in fact, in Italy. It was 06:30 in the morning, and the violet stripes of night just began fading from over the water. The slow pace of morning was nowhere to be seen – Fish were flying in the air and boxes of white polystyrene were falling like snowflakes from the top floor to the deck, tossed around from one salty dried hand to another. Two plastic containers of 500 liters were fixed in the middle of the deck, each filled with Barracudas, Sardines, Mullet and Greater Amberjack by the thousands that were quickly divided by the two men standing in dead fish to their ankles.
“Lampedusa is a Mediterranean hotspot” said the professor. I know, I wanted to say, we all know from the news. But he continued: “On one side you have species migrating from the strait of Gibraltar, and on the other from the waterway of the Suez canal. So any new species arriving to the Mediterranean will arrive and concentrate here. If you draw a triangle between the island, Tunisia, and Libya, you get a marvelous gem both for research and for fishing”.
Other than fishing – which isn’t actually a production – the island has nothing that it really makes of its own. Food arrives daily from Sicily along with other products such as clothing and utilities. The few restaurants mostly stand empty offering a confused menu of pasta and couscous, spicy Moroccan fish and steak. But I saw not one non-Italian person to match the non-Italian sights. It was calm and ambiguous. As if the island had no other owner but the sea.
A man in a green wetsuit began sweeping the floor covered fish. He opened a hatch in the wooden body of the boat and began shoveling out the bycatch. The quantity – despite knowing the numbers – is hardly believable until you see it: Hundreds and hundreds of fish, mostly dead, that are either too small or too unknown to be of interest to the market are pushed off board, instantly filling the sky with flocks of seagulls. Every once in awhile a by passer – either a fellow of the port or a less fortunate man – stopped by the boat with a plastic bag in hand. Once spotted by one of the fishermen, he would then come with several fish in hand and fill their bag. A silent head nod was shared and the work continued. The thousands of fish on board slowly decreased in quantity as small refrigerated vans arrived and drove away filled with fresh catch, and the man in the green suit continued shoveling fish off the floor. Within an hour it was all gone. At 07:30 hosses were pulled out to start washing the containers, putting everything in order before setting back out.
The sea was beautiful. Truly the nicest I’ve seen, like a blue silk blanket in the wind. I remembered interviewing a migrant in Sicily last year while we were walking on the docks of a port in Messina – the one into which he arrived from Libya. The fearful eyes he had when looking at the water was unforgettable. No hotspot ever looked so calm.
All photos by Natalie Shafrir