Tuna Fishing - It-Tunnara

By Doris Fenech

There is no doubt that tuna fishing was practiced in the Mediterranean since 8000 BC, as blue fin tuna ("tonn"), vertebrae are found in ancient archaeological sites in Greece. The blue fin tuna "thunnus thynnus" can grow to 3.7 meters in length, weight 680 kilogram and live for 30 years.

In 1748, the first "Mattanza" "Tunnara" was introduced by the Grand Master Pinto. The tuna net was elevated and posited at "il- Fgura" in Mellieha Bay, known for schools ("gliba"), of full-blown blue fin tuna swims few kilometers away from the coast.

In the months of May, June and July, blue fin tuna migrate from the Atlantic ocean to the warmer Mediterranean sea, through the Straits of Gibraltar original spawning grounds and return back after the season has completed in September until October.The Grand Master Pinto financed the Mellieħa "tunnara". For many Mellieha fishermen ("sajjieda"), the tuna industry was their only livelihood. The fishermen were known as sailors ("baħrin"), and the head of the fishermen was called ("ir-rajjes" -"padrun").

When the ("tunnara"),was fully raised, the villagers would go down to the bay to assets for the blessing of the net. The parish priest was rowed on a boat to the ("tunnara"), site and bless the net to have a prospect fishing season and recite prayers for the safety of the men.

In the entrance of the ("tunnara"), the ("padron"), set a big wooden cross bearing artistic holy picture of their patron, The Madonna of Mellieħa and other devoted Saints. They were very superstitions that they also hanged palm fronds, blessed on Palm Thursday facing the Mellieħa Sanctuary.

The first tuna net ("xibka" -m"għazel"), was laid on the 3 April 1748, after two months waiting on boats in the blazing sun, the net was raised with a large number of tuna and other big fish.

The fishermen became very skillful and the ("tunnara"), was very prosperous, that other (tunnaretti"), were erected. The ("tunnara"), was capable of flowing, the net was shifted according the wind and the sea currents - "ic-Cerkewwa", "ir-Rdum id-Delli", "il-Gnejna", "l-Għadira"," Mistra", St Paul's Bay, and "Gnejna".

The nets were anchored ("ankrati"), to secure the maze nets to the seabeds. The largest anchor "l-kaprajjes", weighted 4400 kg and was coasted at "ix-Xquq" known as ("kap il-rajjes"), and later as Anchor Bay.

The "tunnara" consisted of two massive long meshed nets ("xbieki"), made of coconut palm, which extending at right angles from the coast and a series of chambers made of vertical nets anchored by stone slabs and kept vertical by about 500 buoys or cork- floats ("sufruni -  baga"), and about 30 anchors ("nakri"), and other stones tied to a ropes ("mażżri").

The net was set in the position of the tuna migratory habits. The tuna unaware of what lies before them, enter the first room of the tuna trap and passing through the net, entered from one chamber to the another, until finally it reaches the chamber of death ("tqila" - "qtil il-ħut"), from which there was no escape. This chamber had a horizontal floor of netting called the cradle ("kampina").

A large number of fishermen toil at the same time, on three different types vessels - "ix-Xieru", "Luzzu", "Barkazza".

The main boat was ("ix-Xieru"), - long and coated with black tar, at least sixty feet long and rowed with large oars to the middle of the Mellieħa Bay. The ("Xieru"), had a crew of 40 and was strongly build to withstand the stress of sixteen men struggling at one side raising the net full of tuna.

"Luzzu tas-sinjal" was placed in front of the "tonnara", with the necessary night lanterns to localize where the tunny net was set.

The "Luzzu" a Maltese traditional type of fishing boat, which was propelled by sails or oars and later by motor engines. The "Luzzu" usually reaches 15 meters in length, with the bow and the stern rise above the rest of the boat in order to protect the crew from the spray of the sea ("raxx tal-baħar"), when moving against the waves. The boat was brightly painted in shades of yellow, red, green and blue. The "Luzzu" prow ("pruwa"), has the most prominent feature, a pair of carved and painted eye of Osiris or Horus.

The "Barkazza", was a strong boat which accompanied the "xieru" when trapping the tuna fish. It was build strong to withstand the hard work of the "tunnara" and was equipped with a wooden windless amidships for the purpose of stretching the heavy tunny net. The boat was placed to guard ("għasses") the entrance of the net chamber ("kampin"). The men receives the tuna in the contrive chamber and signal to the ("padrun"), the arrival of the tuna.

From an other "Barkazza'' the ("rajjes"), give the order to open the doors and let the tuna pass into the chamber of the death ("tqila"), or ("qtil il-ħut"). When the net was full with tuna, the padrun would shout "rise!" ("lieva"), with great ability the sailors would start lifting the parbuckle ("lenvilli"), of the big net with the strength of their arms while loudly reciting prayers and singing folk songs ("għana"),which was passed down over from one generation to an other.

As the bottom of the net ("għazel"), was elevated to the surface, the frantic fish would beat the surface off the sea into white spume, as they leap to escape by rapidly vibrating fins and shaking tails. The tuna was let to swim to get feeble before they were hooked one by one with long-poled hooks.

They were carefully handled to avoid bruising and with great difficulty, the large fish was pulled by several men with a hitch ("ingassa"), and placed in the edge of the boat. When all the tuna was pulled out, they sink and anchored the empty cradle net into the seabed and anchored, this movement was called ("metanza").

A red flag would to signal the rise ! ("lieva"). The church bells start ringing, while the Mellieħa villagers rush down to the bay, to give a hand with the pulling of the heavy long boats, huge tuna nets, or loading the big fish on carts (''karrettuni''), to be carried to the fish market (''pixkerija''), in Valletta.

They had the custom to give a tuna to the inquisitor (''inkwizitur''), as a token for their good catch and another tuna to the Mellieha Sanctuary ("is-Santwarju tal-Madonna"), to be raffled, oil-lamp was lighten in front of the icon of  "Il-Madonna tal-Mellieħa", a way to express their gratitude for the abundant catch and for keeping an eye on them while fishing.

For many years, fishmongers proudly roamed every village calling out - fresh red eye fish - Mellieħa tuna ("Għajnu ħamra it-tonn - tal-Mellieha t- tonn'').

In 1907, a warehouse was build at Anchor Bay to be used for the "tunnara" needs. Later they stored the nets and the equipment in the Westreme battery at ("it-truciera") in Mellieħa Bay, build in 1715 by the Knights of St John.

It is recall that in 1930's, Dun Frangisk Borg, known as ("tan-Niges") was the manager of the "tonnara", subsequent by Arthur "Turu" Bonnici and later succeed by his relative Guzi Bugeja.

The manager ("il-manager"), was the owner of the "tonnara" equipment and the holder of the fishing permit. He was responsible for the transaction of the selling of the catch and payed a quarter of the profit in tax. After the manager had his share, the rest of the gain was divided equity between the fishermen.

Women helped the men in the repairing and layout of the nets in the Sanctuary square, to let dry before stored for winter. Children gave a hand with selling of the tuna and assisted with the storing of the nets, in the small rooms at the Mellieha Sanctuary and at the homes of the ("rajjes"), and crew.

In 1961, the "tunnara" was casted at "l-Imgiebaħ" in the north of Malta, hoping for a bigger catch, when a British military vessel based in Malta, not knowing the "tunnara" fishing position, passed over the nets, causing great damages to the equipment.

Owing to financial difficulties the owner and crew, refrained from rebuilding the "tunnara". This hard decision induce the end the of the memorable days of the Mellieħa fishing industry.


Issue 5 - Summer 2005