Off the coast of Italy, a radical approach to battling illegal fishing: a seafloor sculpture museum

Both an artistic statement and a physical barrier to seafloor trawling, the 'Guardians' also provide a jump-start for the biodiversity decimated by the practice – and a safeguard for a dwindling climate saviour.

By Veronique Mistiaen
Published 8 Feb 2022, 13:41 GMT, Updated 9 Feb 2022, 13:41 GMT
Algae is beginning to take over the sculpture named 'Acqua' by Giorgio Butini. On of 39 sculptures ...

Algae is beginning to take over the sculpture named 'Acqua' by Giorgio Butini. On of 39 sculptures now in place, the Talamone Guardians have been gradually installed on the seabed off the coast of the Italian port since 2015. 

Photograph by Casa Dei Pesci

“THE STONE is asking me to give it the right face: it is thoughtful, quiet,” says British stone sculptor Emily Young. She carves boldly, clad in a thick jacket, leather hat, sturdy boots, face mask and ear plugs, but no gloves because “you need to feel what’s happening with the stone through the tool.” She draws a line here and there where an eye or a mouth might be, then starts cutting the stone with an angle grinder – a power tool that can cut through marble – or with a chisel and a big hammer.

“I cut until the stone lets me know what to do. As I carved behind his nose where his left eye would appear, there was a large white stripe, which went down from the corner of his eye to the bottom of the stone. It was a geological accident, but it looked like a tear. I called the piece the Weeping Guardian.”

Young, who has been called "Britain's greatest living stone sculptor", has work exhibited and collected around the world, but it is the first time that one of her creations reposes at the bottom of the sea.

Young’s 18-tonne Weeping Guardian and two other colossal faces (The Gentle Guardian and the Young Guardian), which she carved in Carrara marble with the help of two associates over five days, were lowered down on the sea bed off the coast of Tuscany at Talamone, a town between Florence and Rome, in 2015. There, her massive stone guardians are protecting marine life against gangs trawling illegally at night - and will hopefully keep their quiet watch for thousands of years. 

Work grinding marble for 'La Sirena’ (mermaid) by artists Lea Monetti and Aurora Avvantaggiato.

Photograph by Carlo Bonazza

'The Young Guardian' by Emily Young. Made from Carrara Marble, the sculptures are crafted in rock from same quarries used by Michelangelo.

Photograph by Carlo Bonazza

'House of fish'

Young’s unusual work is part of an on-going project by local fisherman Paolo Fanciulli and his non-profit Casa dei Pesci to try to protect the sea in a creative way. There are now 39 underwater sculptures and marble blocks at Talamone, placed in 2015 and 2020, and another 12 are ready to join them as soon as necessary funds can be raised.

Bottom trawlers drag their heavy-weighted nets multiple times over the sea floor, scraping it bare and destroying the Posidonia (Posidonia oceanica), known as Neptune grass, a flowering seagrass endemic to the Mediterranean, which forms large underwater meadows and acts as a nursery and sanctuary for all marine life. The Posidonia also soaks up 15 times more carbon dioxide annually than a similar sized piece of the Amazon rainforest. For these reasons, the Posidonia is a protected species included in the EU’s Habitats Directive and the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, and bottom trawling is illegal within three nautical miles from the coast in Italy. But because it is very profitable, and impossible to police the 8000km of Italian coastline, boats carry on at night regardless. 

Left: Top:

Paolo Fanciulli, fisherman and founder of Casa Dei Pesci.

Right: Bottom:

The pontoon (platform) used to drop the sculptures to the seafloor. The process is expensive: €5,000 Euros at 'friendly fees.'

photographs by Vincenzo Esposito

Art plus conservation

Now in his 60s, Fanciulli has been fishing around Talamone since he was a teenager.  In the 1980s, he started noticing the devastation caused by bottom trawlers and the impact it had on his and other local fishermen’s catch and livelihood. He has been trying to fight them ever since.

In 2006, he joined force with the municipality of Talamone and a few environmental organisations to drop big concrete bollards on the bottom of the Mediterranean to “serve as secret agents under the sea”. The action received media attention and he became a national hero – but it wasn’t enough to deter the trawlers. The local mafia also retaliated by making sure he couldn’t sell his fish at the market, and threatening him.

He needed to find another way. “He thought: ‘This is Italy. We do art. If we could put art and conservation together, we might have more impact’,” explains Ippolito Turco, a friend of Fanciulli and president of the non-profit Casa dei Pesci, which they created together for that purpose with the support of several cultural and environmental associations.

They asked nearby Carrara quarries if they could donate a few stones. Franco Barattini, the president of one of Carrara’s best-known quarries - Michelangelo cave, the very place where the eponymous artist came at the turn of the 16th century to select stones for his iconic David and Pietà statues – promised to donate not a few, but 100 huge blocks of marble.

Top left: Ittico obelisco by Massimo Catalani; Top right: Sirena by Lea Monetti and Aurora Avvantaggiato; Bottom left: a diver poses with Acqua by Giorgio Butini; Bottom right: Starfish by Francesca Bonanni.

Photograph by Casa Dei Pesci

Young, along with Italian artists Giorgio Butini and Massimo Lippi, and other artists from four countries, was asked to carve the marble blocks. “We all donated our time. I thought it was a brilliant project: it would attract more attention to the problem,” says Young, whose studio is the former monastery of Santa Croce between Pisa and Rome.

Casa dei Pesci raised funds through crowdfunding and donations, and Fanciulli and Turco used their local contacts to help transporting and lowering the sculptures on sea bed. Even with “friendly” fees, it costs €5000 to transport and lower just one block into the sea.

The sculptures were placed in a circle, four metres apart around a central obelisk, carved by Massimo Catalani, another Italian artist. A bit further sleeps a mermaid, a collaboration by sculptor Lea Monetti and young artist Aurora Vantaggiato, and a reclining figure by Butini, among other works.

“The marble sculptures create both a physical barrier for the trawlers’ nets and a unique underwater museum, open to anyone either through arranged scuba diving tours or their own dive.”

Guarding carbon capture

The marble sculptures create both a physical barrier for the trawlers’ nets and a unique underwater museum, open to anyone either through arranged scuba diving tours or their own dive. “It’s really beautiful and it’s amazing to see how easy it is for nature to recover. We want people to see under the surface of the sea and create a new consciousness for sustainable sea development,” explains Turco.

(Related: in search of the Mediterranean's great white sharks.)

The scheme has completely stopped illegal trawling within three miles off shore in front of Talamone as far south as the mouth of the Ombrone river, Turco says. “But now the pirate boats have moved north of the Ombrone. Casa dei Pesci plans to protect this stretch of sea as well, up to the limit of the municipality of Grosseto. Further north, it will be up to other fishermen and other municipalities to decide what to do. If all the traditional small-scale fishermen and all the municipalities decided to do the same, then there would be no more space for illegal fishing and the sea would repopulate.”

Despite this victory, the vast expanses of Posidonia meadows, devasted by the bottom trawlers, are not likely to recover, says Fabrizio Serena, Associate Senior Researcher CNR IRBIM National Research Council – Institute of Marine Biological Resources and Biotechnologies in Mazara del Vallo.  While algae generally reproduce fast, the life cycle of Posidonia is much slower. “In order to obtain well-structured Posidonia beds, we need about 30-40 years and a well-protected environment where pollution and human disturbances are absent, and this is practically impossible today.”

Talamone lies on the West coast of Italy, facing the Tyrrhenian Sea. 

Photograph by Vincenzo Esposito

'Ziggurath' by Massimo Catalani, in place on the seabed.

Photograph by Casa Dei Pesci

A Greenpeace demonstration in 2015 marked the day of the first drop of blocks. The slogan reads 'stop illegal fishing'.

Photograph by Greenpeace

When a Posidonia prairie is compromised, the only thing to do is to try to protect what remains of it, Serena adds.  “In this sense the Talamone statues can still protect the few Posidonia beds that have remained and this is an important protective action, the only example in the Mediterranean area.”

The statues are also providing a structure for organisms to attach themselves and grow. After just one or two weeks, the stones are covered with a slight film of unicellular microorganisms (bacteria, microalgae and fungi), Serena says. A year or more later, larger organisms, such as barnacles, oysters, algae, corals, sponges, star fish and crabs have made their homes there as well. (Related: can we save coral reefs?)

This structured community has, in turn, encouraged more plant life and sea creatures to return. Fishermen have already noticed that lobsters, octopuses, breams, damsels and even a pod of bottlenose dolphins, which hadn’t been seen for years, have returned to these waters.

The dolphins, however, are causing problems. “There is a growing conflict between dolphins and fishermen because there isn’t enough food for them at large, so they come closer to the coast and push the fish into the nets and suck up the catch, damaging the nets,” says Enrica Franchi, a researcher at the University of Siena. Her team is working in collaboration with Fanciulli and local fishermen to try to prevent dolphins and sea turtles - which come closer to the coast in the spring and summer to nest – from becoming entangled in the nets.  Last year, they have launched a project to fit the nets with acoustic and ultraviolet devises to keep dolphins and turtles away.

Hopefully, over the years, the Talamone sculptures will be teeming with marine life. “Within five to seven more years, if there's no disturbance, the underwater museum can become an area rich in biodiversity and satisfy, in a way, the needs of the marine ecosystem,” Serena says. And the statues will keep their silent watch for thousands of years.

The statues, says sculptor Young, “are a poetic venture of imagination, an act of faith. The project addresses the future, and whether we're here or not, the stones will be, for possibly millions of years, carrying something of our humanity into the unknowable future, embodied in material millions of years old, carved by a human hand.”

Veronique Mistiaen is an award-winning journalist, covering social and humanitarian issues, global development and the environment for leading publications in the UK and internationally. Follow her on Twitter.

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