Some have handed them in to the authorities, like others once handed in their Colts and Winchesters to the town sheriff. Others, driven by greed or the need to survive, continue to use them, stowing them away near the docks of Tunisian ports and casting them widely in the waters off Calabria. Pelagic fishing nets, known here as spadare and used to catch tuna and swordfish, were banned by the European Union in 2002 because they wipe out the marine environment. In Italy they are the leading cause of death of sperm whales and dolphins, which become trapped in their invisible drifting walls.

The ultimatum which must put an end to the war arrived in Brussels on October 6. Italy has two months to turn the page. Sixty days to end ten years of illegality. Europe’s patience has cost it as much as 200 million euros, which is what the European Commission has paid out to Italy’s fishers to convert their pelagic net fisheries into other systems of fishing that are less devastating. After cashing their checks, though, Italian fishermen have continued to toss out their ghost nets.

Only one year ago, peace between the fishing boats and the harbour officials seemed close at hand, as a “cease-fire” was agreed to by the Bagnara Calabra fishermen in the province of Reggio Calabria. At a highly publicised press conference on 24 June 2010, they handed in their nets to the authorities in exchange for a few permits to practice longline fishing – long lines baited with series of hooks and thrown over the stern of a trawler. Few followed their example.

Between 2005 and 2009 alone some 2,800 kilometres of pelagic nets were confiscated – almost the distance between Agrigento and London. And during the first nine months of 2011, no fewer than 93 violations were recorded, leading to the confiscation of 221 km of prohibited nets, an increase of 64 percent over 2010.

Having cashed their checks they continued to defraud the system

On the list of 330 outlaw vessels published by the Pew Environment Foundation, “about 103 had received substantial grants from both the European Union and the Italian state (more than 12.5 million from 1998 to 2006) to convert pelagic nets to other gear less damaging to the environment."

But with cheques in hand, the fishermen continued to defraud the system. One is the owner of the trawler San Francesco I of Palermo, who received a grant of 37,000 euros in 2004 and in the last six years has been fined six times. Or the captain of the Patrizia, fined four times in 2007 between the islands of Milazzo and Lipari after having picked up no less than 249,000 euros of state aid to convert his gear.

The Coast Guard officers suspect that "the funds granted for the conversion of fishing gear were actually used to purchase expensive equipment to continue practising the prohibited fishery with methods that are more efficient." Often, the systems that are authorised serve as cover for the illegal methods. "In effect, the fishing licenses almost always cover the use of long lines, and the crews then report that the swordfish found on board have been caught with hooks – which, in reality, are hooked into the fishes’ mouths after their capture (in nets),” writes Alessandro Vittorio, commander of the Coast Guard.

Spadare nets hidden in marinas

Another method is to place end-to-end several ferrettara, or nets with a maximum length of 2.5 km that are approved for use 10 kilometres off the coast of Italy. “We have seen extremely long walls of ferrettara, made of nets each of the maximum length and placed end to end. The ferrettara thus turn into huge pelagic nets that snag in their meshes tens of tons of swordfish."

The "ports of convenience" are the poachers’ operational bases, where many dozens of kilometres of spadare nets are stowed away. One such is the port of Bizerte, in Tunisia, where the Italian poachers can arrive and load and unload the spadare and ferrettara nets fully within the law. In 2010, three fishing boats were intercepted as they prepared to sail with their illegal gear towards a fishing site some 40 kilometres north of the African coast. Nearly 11,000 metres of nets on the first trawler and about 5,500 on the second, and more than 1000 kilos of swordfish, were confiscated.

According to the statements of the investigators in the Monstrum Mare report from Legambiente (the Italian League for the Environment), it’s not only improvising fishermen who are practicing the illegal fisheries, but actual criminal organisations, including mafia types, armed with all instruments possible for raking all the life out of the sea." And perhaps it’s no coincidence that in Sicily, Calabria or Campania, areas that are home to the Cosa Nostra, the Camorra and ‘Ndrangheta, the spadare and other illegal fishing methods have been the rule for a long time, and remain so.

According to Confesercenti, an important association of Italian companies, the turnover from legal fishing may reach two billion euros per year. The turnover from illegal fishing is more difficult to quantify. According to investigators, however, it may reach 1.5 billion.