Date Mussels

Italian police has found out that there are criminal syndicates, mainly the Camorra, involved in illegally hunting of date mussels in Naples, which is tearing down the reefs of Naples, mainly along the Amalfi coast and around the island of Capri.

After three year long probe including wire taps, surveillance, and nearly hundred suspects, the police eventually cracked down with a dozen arrests in March 2021.

A few of the families, associated with the Camorra, have been overseeing the poaching and trade of mussels, according to Guilio Vanacore, an environmental prosecutor at the Naples prosecution office. The families sell some of the mussels to fish shops, restaurants, pizzerias and Italy’s elite. The very fact that fishing or selling date mussels is illegal in the European Union has resulted in treating mussels as a status symbol, among the Camorra, serving it during celebrations, to demonstrate the power of their clans, within their territories.

Lithophaga lithophaga, also known as date mussels, are cigar shaped shellfish that make their homes inside limestone, where they secrete an acid, which slowly carves out a tunnel in the rock. They take decades to grow, from 18 to 36 years, on average, just to reach 5cm in length. These type shellfish can live around for more than fifty years. As a result, a single kilogram of the prized shellfish can fetch up to 200 euros (US$245) on the thriving local black market.

However, it takes just a few seconds, using sledgehammers and explosives, to squeeze them out, devastating the marine environment in the process. The hammering and bombing can cause rock faces underwater to fracture and eventually collapse, which also puts manmade infrastructure above the waves vulnerable.

The development of scuba diving, after the Second World War, enabled the exploitation of this resource in previously unreachable sites, like caves and deep sites.

In Italy, mussel poaching didn’t start from areas around Naples. There is evidence of date mussel fishery in Sardinia in the Cagliari Gulf, which decreased since the ’90s, whereas this practice was still ongoing in other areas of the region, such as in the Palmas Gulf. Evidence of date mussel fishery was also reported along the Ligurian coast, both in the La Spezia Gulf and in the Bergeggi Island, which were frequently targeted by poachers. A widespread, though non-homogeneous, damage caused by this illegal practice was observed along 128 out of 206 km monitored in the Salento peninsula. It is also confirmed that there is widespread damage caused by this illegal fishery along the Apulian coast.

It is estimated that the illegal harvest of date mussels by a single fisherman can destroy up to 2,400 square metres of seabed, on average. After poaching, the reefs become like the moon’s surface, as no life remains in them, due to the fact that the fragmented rock remains protects the organisms from oxygen.

Date mussels have also been part of southern Italian gastronomic culture since ancient Roman times. People would walk to the shore with a hammer to extract a few mussels for dinner. Towards the end of the 20th century, however, the deterioration of the reefs had become visible.

In an interview with Guardian writer, Agostino Petroni: “It’s as though to harvest mushrooms, gatherers would uproot the whole forest that took hundreds of years to grow,” says Marco Sacchi, a geologist at Napoli Institute of Marine Science (Ismar), who was hired by the Naples public prosecution office to investigate the damage done by the illegal harvest.”

Due to widespread collateral damage to local ecosystems, the Italian government had banned fishing of date mussels in 1988. Although areas, which were under pristine condition before, are now left damaged. It indicates poaching is continuing on a large scale. Whenever scuba diving tour operators in Naples, look for places where datterari (poachers) passed by, and found out their poaching activities, it makes them feel as if a part of them has died. It is ruining their tourism activities, too, because marine life on the rock face can take years to regenerate, even in ideal conditions, after mussel poaching. Very less people have been talking about it because these stories are not known widely in the Italian public, and Europe at large, where this practice is common too.

When some local people tried to fight back, and persuaded some restaurateurs not to buy or serve mussels, they received threats over the years, from the Camorra. In 2010 poachers destroyed one of the most beautiful areas inside a local marine reserve in Naples, as a mark of revenge.

According to Italy’s Ecodelitti law, environmental and pollution crimes punishable by up to fifteen years in prison. In 2018 Guilio Vanacore, a 37 year old magistrate, working in the environment section of the Naples public prosecution office, compiled a 1,110 report that traced every step of the criminal business and named more than 100 people, from harvesters to restaurant owners.

Date mussels, in some places, have also reported to have several pollutants in their tissues, and the consumption of this species may lead to potential risks for human health. Several field studies evidenced the presence of toxic organic compounds and heavy metals in date mussel tissues. Although, some studies considered them safe for consumption as well.

Despite Camorra being pivotal in mussel poaching in Naples, researchers have concluded that there is a general lack of public awareness about the illegal mussel trade in local fish markets, beyond Naples. In a local survey, in Apulia, before 2015, where children between the age of 8 to 13 years were involved, around forty percent of them declared having eaten date mussels. And, on the contrary, which may seem ironical, the children receiving information from schools and the local museum were aware of the consequences of this activity. The abundance of date mussel dishes/recipes reported in websites such as TripAdvisor also highlights a softer enforcement approach by authorities, although restaurants serving date mussels in Italy are very few, as compared to other European countries such as Albania, Spain, Croatia, and Slovenia.

Naveed Qazi is an author of six books. He is the editor of Globe Upfront, and can be mailed at naveedqazi@live.com


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