Fish House: an underwater art gallery to protect the sea

16 May 2023

Picture the scene: You’re swimming out to sea from a beach in Tuscany. With your dive mask on you take a look below the surface, hoping to see some fish.

But what catches your eye is something even more impressive: a collection of enormous marble sculptures on the seabed, with the fish swimming around them.

And the amazing thing is, it’s not a coincidence. The sculptures are there precisely to protect a marine ecosystem which has been devastated by bottom trawlers: the presence of the sculptures keeps large fishing boats at bay. This is the reality off the coast of Talamone, in the Maremma region of southern Tuscany.

We spoke to founder Giovanni Contardi about the Fish House.

How did the Fish House project start?

The project came about by chance. The Michelangelo Quarries in Carrara were willing to provide us with discarded marble blocks that we could use as deterrents against fishing trawlers. Some sculptors who’d been on fishing trips around Talamone with Paolo Fanciulli got word of this, and they offered to carve some of the blocks. We began to imagine an underwater art garden on the seabed off the coast of the town, something that could draw public attention to the importance of protecting the seabed.

And just how would these marble blocks protect the seabed?

Shallow trawling (or bottom trawling)—which differs from ocean trawling—involves dragging a large along the seabed, the bottom of which is ballasted with heavy chains. This method catches every species in its path, devastating the natural habitat by destroying the structures that provide shelter for fish, like Neptune grass and coral. This means long-term damage for fish populations, as they are prevented from reproducing.

Italian legislation stipulates that trawling should not be carried out any less than three nautical miles from the coast, or on seabed depths of less than 50 meters. Bollards are stone or concrete blocks that are too heavy to be lifted or dragged by trawling nets: they become entangled and torn. This forces the fishing vessels to respect the boundaries of areas protected by the presence of these blocks.

An artist at work on a marble block to be placed in the sea. Photo: La Casa dei Pesci

What difference does it make, if the blocks are sculpted or not?

The fact that the blocks are sculpted does not, of course, add any value to their effectiveness in combating bottom trawling. The sculpting of the blocks has a communicative value, drawing public attention and raising awareness of the importance of protecting the seabed.

You’re close Giglio Island, site of the Costa Concordia shipwreck and environmental disaster. How much did this incident increase awareness of the fragility of the local ecosystem?

The Costa Concordia shipwreck occurred in 2012, when the Fish House project was already getting underway. We can certainly say that the accident brought greater attention to the issue of ecosystem fragility, as accentuated by the passage of large ships through the Giglio strait. However, the Fish House project had been conceived earlier, thanks to the awareness of local fishermen regarding the progressive depletion of marine life linked to illegal fishing and overfishing. So awareness of the problem is widespread among those working in the sector locally. Nowadays there are outreach efforts being made with school children, (including those carried out by Paolo Fanciulli) so that the younger generations will be more aware of the importance of protecting the environment.

The conference at Slow Fish 2023

Come and hear from Giovanni Contardi and some of the artists who have contributed to the Fish House at the Slow Fish Arena, on June 2 at 9 p.m. The event is free to attend but registration is required.

Book your place now!

You’ve talked about offering underwater trips to go and see the sculptures on the seabed. Could such trips be sustainable?

Our underwater art garden is easily accessible for swimmers, when water clarity conditions permit. You can simply swim out over the sculptures with a dive mask and fins. We are aware that not everyone is able to do this, of course. That’s why we’re exploring the possibility of offering guided access to the site with a local tour operator, using a motorboat with an aquascope.

The issue of balancing tourism and sustainability is particularly topical; the Maremma regions appears to be fortunate in this regard. A far-sighted decision by the Tuscany Region led to the establishment of the Maremma Regional Park in the 1970s. Nature is relatively intact here, and tourism can make use of of relatively easy and attractive trekking routes. In addition, the regional policy in favor of agritourism has helped preserve the beauty of the countryside, enabling farms to survive and thrive. We’re seeing a similar experience now with fishing tourism, allowing Paolo Fanciulli’s small fishing boat to continue operating profitably in the face of declining fish stocks and declining income, caused by overfishing, climate change, and rising costs.

Could this project be replicated elsewhere?

The Fish House project, at least as far as the part related to the protection of the seabed in vulnerable areas is concerned, may certainly be replicated. To this end, contacts are being made with other local administrations. Perhaps, however, it would detract from the uniqueness of our own underwater art garden if this were also to be replicated extensively, making our own underwater gallery less attractive. Let’s hope not!

For the time being, we can be confident that the spectacle of an underwater sculpture is something you are unlikely to see anywhere else besides the Fish House off the coast of Talamone, in Tuscany.

Come and find out more, and meet some of the artists for yourself, at Slow Fish 2023.

by Jack Coulton,

Slow Fish 2023 is organized by Slow Food and the Liguria Region, with the support of the City of Genoa. We’re in the Porto Antico of Genoa from June 1-4. Sign up to the Slow Food newsletter for the latest updates. #SlowFish2023

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