HA 019: Where the Gaze Falls

Plastic Pollution in the Strait of Messina

Words and Images by Davide Bertuccio | Website | Instagram

“Where the Gaze Falls” is a work whose main subject is the sea, where the real problem hides from our eyes. It is within the waters of the sea that the uncertainty of the future is weaving one of the most insidious plots. If we don’t want to drown in plastic in the future, we should begin by learning to respect the sea.

A load of fish is unloaded from the feluca to be later sold at the market. The swordfish, like all other fish species, suffers from plastic pollution of the sea. Contaminated fish sold at the market can end up on people's tables.

Every year it's estimated that between 150-500 thousand tons of macroplastics and between 70-130 thousand tons of microplastics end up in the seas of Europe. Their main destination? The Mediterranean Sea. Plastic represents 95% of waste in the open sea, on the seabed and on the beaches, and causes over 90% of damage to marine wildlife. Globally, there are about 700 marine species threatened by plastic.

Large pieces of plastic, known as macroplastics, can injure, strangle and even result in the death of marine animals. Yet it’s the smaller, more insidious fragments that have reached record concentrations in the Mediterranean Sea where there are an estimated 1.25 million fragments per square kilometer, almost four times higher than those recorded on the “plastic island” of the northern Pacific.

A plastic chair and what remains of a table in the seabed of the Strait of Messina. It is increasingly common to find, even at shallow depths, a clear sign of the impact of humans on the marine environment.

The Strait of Messina, which sits between the eastern tip of Sicily and the western tip of Calabria in Southern Italy, should be an earthly paradise and one of the cleanest sea areas in the world due to its strong currents, but it is not. Hundreds of meters below the surface, between the Strait’s marine canyons, lies an incredible amount of waste. The macroplastic found there is deteriorating very slowly, gradually becoming microplastic and eventually nanoplastic. These particles are ingested by fish and are the ones that could soon present a real risk for humans.

Fishing practices suffer from this pollution as well, and in the last 20 years, there has been a serious decrease in the average catch in the area. Swordfish fishing and fishing with “lampara” (two unique and ancient fishing techniques in the area) are among the fishing activities at risk of disappearance. Local fishermen say that the intense pollution of the seawater is driving a sharp decline in fish species in the Strait as they migrate towards cleaner water.

The fin of a swordfish shortly after being harpooned. This particular fish species is one of the most valuable in the Strait of Messina. In recent years, fishermen have been complaining about declines in the swordfish population. Increasingly warm and contaminated water causes the fish to migrate to colder, cleaner areas.

In Messina, marine biologists have been working for years to protect the sea of the Strait. Their studies, which mainly focus on edible fish, have found that 37% of fish are contaminated with plastic. The microplastic is ingested by the fish, without being absorbed by the tissues, while nanoplastic particles are so small that researchers believe they can cross biological membranes, accumulating in the internal organs of the fish. Understanding whether these particles do indeed cross biological membranes is essential for evaluating the possible risks to marine organisms and, going up the food chain, for human health. The studies about nanoplastics have just begun and, though at the moment it is difficult to foresee the possible complications, what is sure is that pollution produced by humans is already altering the entire marine ecosystem.

Researchers from the University of Messina examining the impact of plastic pollution in the waters of the Strait of Messina. They estimate that 37% of edible fish are currently contaminated. Their research focuses particularly on fish purchased directly from market stalls.

Serena, a Ph.D. student in Marine Biology from the University of Messina, says “Now that the damage is done, the situation of the sea cannot easily be resolved, but surely improved. How? For example by blocking all the production of what can create pollution. Honestly, it is quite sad to note the self-destructive power of man.” 

“I look at the sea, I pause my sight on its vastness and I think it is one of the greatest freedoms to protect”. — Gioele, a researcher with the Department of Marine Biology at the University of Messina.

The interior of a feluca galley. This type of fishing has been handed down from father to son for centuries. In recent years, however, it has become increasingly difficult to find young boys on board. Fishing is not as profitable as it once was. Due to pollution and climate change, which pushes more and more fish species out of the region in search of cleaner waters, many historical fishing practices are at risk of disappearance. The loss of this age-old fishing tradition is a serious risk for the community.
A fragment of microplastic inside the stomach of a fish. Microplastic cannot be absorbed by tissues during digestion, so researchers can control the spread of this type of pollution much more easily. Furthermore, as most people do not eat the stomach of the fish, microplastics pose less of a health risk for humans.
A former fisherman in his home preparing dinner. The disappearance of fish species from the seas has a devastating impact on human life as well as marine biodiversity. Many fishermen have lost their jobs and are forced to learn new income-generating skills, often earning considerably less than they did when fishing for a living.
Fishermen aboard a "feluca". This type of boat is very unique and is used only in the Strait of Messina. Its existence dates back to Greek colonization of the area in the eighth century BC. On the feluca, swordfish are spotted, chased and finally harpooned by hand.