“When describing the principality, most young people will talk about the casinos, the cars, the yachts and the palace,” says David Gamba.“Barely anyone will mention the sea, other than it being something for the boats to float on!” For this passionate, young fisherman, it’s something of a travesty: “Somewhere along the way, we’ve lost a huge amount of our maritime heritage.”
28-year-old David grew up on the port and has fond memories of watching the ‘old boys’ fishing with their rod and line from the harbour walls. How many do that today? Not many. According to David, Monaco has just one professional fisherman left, a guy called Eric.
In 2017, David and his friends founded the Fédération de Pêche en Mer for amateur and artisan fishermen and women who have respect for the sea and its bounty. Today it has around 30 members.“Over the last decade or so, fishing has been given a bad reputation as an activity that plunders the oceans and strips them bare of all fish,” he says, “but that’s simply not what proper fishing is about. A good fisherman would never take all he could catch because then there would be nothing left for the next year!”
It makes perfect sense. Why are fishermen tarred with this brush while mass commercial and industrial fishing vessels continue to go about their work? “Lobbyists and politicians,” says David. He describes himself as someone committed to nature, its protection and nurturing: “Fishermen like myself can be on the front line, noticing if stocks of a certain fish are low or even if there are vessels in the area that are dumping waste or sewage into the sea.” Fishing is banned everywhere in the principality apart from the seawall of Port Hercules. David understands why. Monaco is small and thus stocks are limited: “There are so many grouper in Monaco that octopus numbers are falling, but if we allow the fishing of grouper, then they’ll be none of them left! Sometimes it’s best to leave nature to manage itself. As a federation, we want to share good fishing practises. To fish properly, you have to understand the fish, what it’s doing and what it’s eating. There’s a science behind it! For example, we get thousands of baby mahimahi streaming passed Monaco, but these are fish that can grow up to 15kg and feed several families. Why would you catch them as 20cm babies?”
He also argues that officials should be looking at the bigger picture – geographically: “Local people should be the ones making the decisions, not some centralised bureau far from the sea.” One fine example of positive local decision-making is the 2006 move by the Monegasque government to encourage restaurants and hotels in the principality to stop putting bluefin tuna on their menus. There was no official ban, just an acceptance of the fact that the delicious fish was struggling to maintain its numbers in the face of modern commercial fishing. The federation regularly takes part in tagging operations for a range of species, including the largest tuna in the Mediterranean, the red tuna, which can grow up to 600kg. After years of falling stocks, David says the numbers of bluefin are increasing.
“If we can prove that tuna stocks in the Pelagos Sanctuary have improved,” he says, “then perhaps we can allow artisan line and sport fishing again.” He hopes that the federation will continue to grow in size and importance: “If you truly want to change things, the principality – with its influential residents and fast-moving legislative system – is the place to do it.”
The Monaco catch
David Gamba and his friends at the Fédération are currently working on an informative guide to good fishing practises in this part of the Mediterranean. It is likely to include the strict guidelines that determine whether or not a catch can be landed or put back – live – into the sea as well as information regarding the times of year when certain species can be responsibly caught. Depending on the time of year, fishermen in the area are likely to find the following species on the end of their hook: sea bream (dorade), seabass (loup), mackerel (maquereau), red mullet (rouget), anchovies (anchois), sardines, swordfish (espadon), tuna (thon), monkfish (lotte) and sole.