Apulia: life in the lagoon


The Lesina lagoon

The Lesina lagoon has an area of 51 km2 (5000 hectares); it is 24 km long, its width varies between 1.3 km and 3.4 km and the perimeter is roughly 50 km. The bottom is muddy and the average depth about 1 metre.

Although it is often referred to as Lesina’s lake, it is without doubt a lagoon, there are two canals that connect it with the sea  for the inflow and outflow of water: the Acquarotta channel in the west and the Schiapparo channel in the east.

It is an ancient lagoon, it is thought to have been formed by the accumulation of sand transported by sea currents from north to south. The largest tributary is undeniably the river Fortore, known by Pliny as Frentum, once broader and navigable in part, it has changed its course several times and now at least four different mouths can be identified. The oldest is the one currently known as the Acquarotta channel, where the Fortore river joined the sea forming a large bend. The overflow from this watercourse and the tributaries that flow from the Gargano peninsular also favoured the formation of the lagoon.

Taken as a whole, the Lesina lagoon constitutes a unique natural environment, home to many resident native species and migratory birds. About 200 have been identified, of which 69 visit the lagoon for reproductive purposes. Similar concentrations can only be found in the Po delta area or in the great rivers of North Africa and Southern Europe.

Here we can find the common tern and the black legged tern, the slender-billed gull, the black-winged stilt, the little egret, spoonbill, the marsh harrier, the little tern, the glossy ibis, the avocet, the sandwich tern, black tern and the Kingfisher. The other important species are: the mallard, male or female, (locally known as capoverde or mallarda), the pochard (called Caporosso), the shelduck (in Lesina: Fiscone), the Teal (known as terzella), the moorhen, the crane , the heron and the pink flamingo.

Fisheries in the lagoon

“Lavorieri” or weirs as a fishing system

Fisheries activities in lagoons and coastal ponds dates back to Etruscan times and since then has progressed significantly in the upper Adriatic with valliculture.

The techniques that have been developed enable the production of fish with a high economic value – such as sea bass, sea bream, eels and flathead grey mullet. These species migrate seasonally when juveniles enter the lagoon from the sea, going from salt water to brackish and freshwater which is very rich in food, they then return to the sea to spawn when they reach adult size and sexual maturity (catadromous species). Knowledge of this behaviour has allowed fishers to create special barriers in the channels of communication between the lagoons and the sea in order to capture the adult fish when they migrate back to the open sea, while not impeding the juveniles as they enter the lagoon. These traps are called weirs, they are fixed structures that are installed in the channels of communication between the valley and the sea, allowing the juvenile fish to return upstream while trapping the adult fish that are attempting to leave the lagoon to reproduce.

Two such weirs have been put back in the Lesina lagoon, the main species caught (mature adults) are sea bass, sea bream, flathead grey mullet, eels and garfish.

Paranza – another traditional technique

A typical fishery system in the Lesina lagoon is called “paranza”, which consists of a barrier made of poles and reeds which forces the eels towards the capture gear placed at regular intervals. They are installed from October to February and go from the edges of the lagoon towards the centre.

Nowadays they are not made in the same way as in the past: today this fishing system is made from pieces of net supported by poles.

The paranza system is authorized from September/October to January/February after which it is compulsory to remove the installation. The City Council convenes all those involved at the end of August and extracts the various locations in which the system can be set up, the first are those considered most desirable and profitable in terms of catch potential. Every year this draw is accompanied by a hostile and superstitious ritual, so it is a question of luck who will achieve the largest catches and therefore be most prosperous that year.

When the areas of the lagoon have been assigned, the fishers prepare the poles to support the nets then set off on their boats to the destination that they have extracted. The “paranza” has a characteristic herringbone shape once the fyke nets have been installed.

Over the last century there have been significant changes in how the “paranza” systems are arranged. At the end of the 19th century they were quite open and were positioned on the sheltered north shore of the lagoon, leaving more than half the lagoon free (this was a good, sustainable practice that preserved the resource over the years, for example, the European eel grows to an “attractive” size only after 3-5 years), now closed “paranza” systems are used. this began after World War II and the areas of the lagoon became confined by these systems arranged longitudinally, from shore to shore. This technique is a bad practice, unsustainable for the conservation of the resource.

This is partly why productivity per hectare in the Lesina lagoon has dropped sharply, going from 100 kg/hectare to the current yield of 20 kg/hectare.

Nowadays, greater environmental awareness and the need to strive towards sustainable fisheries mean that fishers and decision-makers have to review the best practices, in an attempt to protect the resource while maintaining fish stocks at sustainable levels, identifying repopulation areas to protect and preserve from capture activities.

The Sandolo

The sandolo, called “sanr” in the local dialect, is a typical vessel used by fishers in the Lesina and Varano lagoons.

The etymology of the word is in the Latin “sandalium“, a type of flat shoe reminiscent of the flat-bottomed boat. Once built entirely of wood by shipwrights and coloured orange and black, it was about 7 metres long – large enough to allow a crew of fishermen to work on board without difficulty; it was fitted with oars, and this was the only kind of navigation allowed.

Today the sandolo has lost some of its original features, the hull – which rarely exceeds 10 meters in length – is still made of wood but is coated with resin and, in some cases, the flat bottom has given way to a partial keel. Outboard motors are increasingly replacing the oars and the pole. Despite the structural changes, however, it is still used by local small-scale fishers.