Suddenly I realised how the whole thing worked.
Porto Pino features in guides to Sardinia for its splendid beaches, which stretch for kilometres along the coast. But just behind the beaches are a series of huge lagoons shallow enough for flocks of flamingoes to feed at their ease, where a remarkable form of fish farming goes on.
This isn’t a matter of relative density stocking or fish feed, what do we do with sea lice or fish shit for that matter, or any of the other challenges that face more orthodox forms of fish farming. At Porto Pino they simply harvest at a sustainable level what the environment serves up.
The lagoons serve as an enormous nursery and kindergarten for a mass of grey mullet, sea bass, bream, witch soles. They breed here, grow fat on the abundant feed in the salt water, swim around the lagoons keeping fit, and when they’re ready for the market, well, this is where the really clever bit comes in.
At one point in the lagoon, there are two lines of stakes in the form of a huge V. The sections between the stakes are lined with smaller palings of metal or plastic, in effect forming walls with a narrow channel between them. At the point where the two arms of the V meet is a round kind of chamber. I’ve only come across this system two before, and neither could be remotely connected to Porto Pino. The fishermen of Lake Commachio in Northern Italy used exactly same configuration to trap eels in the lake; as did the fishermen on a remote island off Korea to catch anchovies.
But the arrangement at Porto Pino added an extra refinement. Up stream of the V trap a canal sent a heavy stream of water into the lagoon, oxygenating the water. Fish like a bit of oxygenated water, and so naturally swim towards it – and into the trap. That ‘s just so neat.
The fish below a certain size escape though the gaps between the palings. All the fishermen now have to do is net the trapped fish, load them into large plastic buckets and transport them to a metal table where they are sorted by species and by size. The undersized ones get thrown back. The rest are loaded into polystyrene boxes ready to be sold off to the ready buyers lining up. It’s as efficient, natural and all-that-other-environmentally-sensitive guff a system as I’ve ever come across.
Pietro, the head man with a bald head, a big tummy and tattoos on his biceps, was a bit cagy as to exactly how much fish he and the other fishermen took out of the lagoon each year, but pointed out that it was in their interests to keep stocks stable, and that the fishery had been going for 40 years.
Did he eat the fish himself? I asked.
He looked sheepish. No, he said, he was meat man.