The problem of poaching in the rivers of northern Italy

The problem of poaching in the rivers of northern Italy
The problem of poaching in the rivers of northern Italy

The phenomenon of poaching fish, that is poaching, has been widespread in the rivers and canals of northern Italy for about ten years: the last operation of the Carabinieri of the Forestry Corps took place a few days ago in the province of Parma, where two fishermen – poachers were stopped on the Rio Puntone Nero, in the municipality of Bedonia, while they were using an electric stunner to catch dozens of fish, in a few minutes and with extreme ease.

The phenomenon is widespread in Lombardy, Veneto, Piedmont, Emilia-Romagna and especially in the Po delta. The fish poachers come largely from Romania and other Eastern European countries such as Bulgaria and Moldavia. In two or three hours they can catch even 500-600 kilos of fish. Carp, catfish, zander, Russian grayling and crucian carp end up in the nets. They are destined for the stalls of Eastern European markets or, not uncommon, even for some Italian markets. Recently, with an article, also the Guardian.

The bands of poachers have divided up the territory, they never enter into conflict with each other and have well-defined borders. Each group consists of 10-15 people, divided into two teams. Poachers arrive at the riverbank at night and inflate a rubber boat. Then they put the electric stunner into operation, a rather simple device consisting of an automobile battery connected to an adjustable transformer. Electricity is passed through two cables, live, equipped with switches and connected to a metal rod, or to a metal mesh, with a rubber handle. Just dip the rod into the water to release the discharges. The fish are stunned and lured towards the nets. The poachers, in a single night of fishing, are able to capture a large part of the fish fauna present in that area.

He explained in an interview with Morning Stefano Testa, lieutenant colonel of the anti-poaching operations section of the carabinieri: «The fish runs along the line of force and is collected. Or it rises to the surface and is recovered later ». Another group is tasked with bringing the fish to an abandoned cottage. Here a first summary processing takes place, then the fish are loaded, in boxes full of ice, on vans headed for Eastern Europe. The hygienic and sanitary rules are totally absent. Certifications for transported products are often false.

«Catfish, which in our waters can exceed two meters and 100 kg, live at the bottom of rivers. Studies have shown that they are highly polluted, they absorb and retain toxic substances dispersed in river waters in the fat “, he says to Post Marco Falciano, a voluntary fish security guard operating in the Ferrara area. «They are fish that, if eaten, can harm health and that do not end up only in the fish markets of Eastern Europe but also in the Italian ones, with false or” bought “certifications».

Torpedo fish poached in the Po delta are strata found on market stalls in Rome, Bologna, Milan.

An operation by the carabinieri against fish poaching

The catfish is an alien fish (i.e. introduced from the outside), present in Italian waters for about 50 years. It devours everything it finds, destroys fish fauna, and lives longer than other fish in the rivers of northern Italy. For this reason, in the past years the hunting of this species had been encouraged: there are too many of them and they are harmful. The problem is that poachers catch them and sell them as food. Having fewer catfish fish in the water is good but if they end up on consumers’ tables, the health risk is real. «Not to mention», adds Marco Falciano, «that the means used by poachers make no distinction: catfish are killed but at the same time carp, pike, shrimp, freshwater crabs. Where poachers pass, the whole ecosystem is destroyed ».

“The situation has improved compared to a few years ago,” says al Post Gianluca Veronesi, president of the Amici della Golena association, a group of fishermen engaged in anti-poaching surveillance in the Casalasco area, Lower Cremonese. “We patrolled this slice of territory reporting many poachers to the carabinieri. It’s hard work: we do it at night, between 11pm and 5am. Thanks to our vigilance, many poachers have gone to other areas, or abroad. Of course, unfortunately the phenomenon is still present. And here there is no river police, there are forest police who are very busy but do not even have a boat. We will make ours available, which we will soon have ».

In addition to the electrofisher, trammel nets are also used. These are rectangular nets with three levels of meshes of different diameters that remain tight thanks to poles fixed to the bottom or to the sides. A regular net can be, by law, up to 25 meters long, poachers’ nets are hundreds of meters long. In May in the Brian canal, in San Donà di Piave, a net two meters high and 100 long was found in which carp, a 50-kilo catfish and numerous turtles were imprisoned. “Here in the Cremona area we found a net of 700 meters”, says Gianluca Veronesi. In the Ostellato canal, in the province of Ferrara, a four-kilometer trammel net was seized.

The use of agricultural fertilizers scattered in the water is also frequent, to create a lack of oxygen: the fish hidden in the holes or in the burrows among the reeds are pushed to move and inexorably go towards the nets. Also in this case the damage to the waterways is enormous.

In northern Italy the phenomenon became important starting from 2012, when what in Romania is called the “fish mafia” began to move towards the Italian waterways. The Danube delta, where poachers first acted, was in fact recognized as a biosphere reserve and a Unesco heritage site in 2012. Controls increased and so did the penalties for those found poaching. In Romania today there is a risk of up to four years in prison for fish poaching and 12 special bodies are involved in protecting the environment.

Danube delta and Po delta have similar characteristics. Romanian poachers, mainly from the Tulcea province, found extremely favorable environmental conditions. The Romanians were joined by the Hungarians, Albanians and Moldovans. In Italy, freshwater fish has no large market. It has a lot of market, however, in Eastern countries, in some Middle Eastern areas and in Africa, where catfish and catfish are in great demand. Of the catfish fish are also commercialized the eggs, processed and salted and often passed off as caviar, which instead comes from the sturgeon.

A catfish caught in the waters of the Po (Siluro Group Movement Photo)

According to a study by the University of Ferrara, in eight channels of the Po delta there was a 30 percent decrease in the number of fish species present, namely catfish and carp. The turnover of the illegal business in Italy is around 5-6 million euros per year. With enormous environmental damage. Each poaching action allows you to catch up to 20 quintals of fish then sold up to 10 euros per kilo. Lieutenant Colonel Testa said to the Guardian: “Can you imagine a normal company making so much profit with such a low investment?”

Recently, especially the forest police have opposed the activities of poachers. But also the voluntary guards who sail the rivers at night to identify poachers and report them to the authorities have done a lot. In the last months of 2020, the Rovigo carabinieri unit completed an important operation, called Gold River: 14 people, 13 Romanians and one Hungarian, were registered in the register of suspects. The hypothesized crimes, as it was written in the communiqué from the carabinieri, were “the mistreatment of animals and fish poaching, habitat deterioration and damage to the aquatic population and commercial fraud, since in the course of the activity false documentation was found in about the traceability of the fish product, the origin of which in reality was not known ».

In addition, the carabinieri ascertained that part of the fish seized by the veterinary service staff, although not suitable for human consumption, “was placed on the food trade, involving serious health risks for consumers”.

It is not easy to monitor the 1,400 square kilometers of the Po delta, but much progress has been made in recent months. Controls have become more stringent, so much so that some groups of poachers have shifted their range of action towards the waterways of central Italy. Furthermore, for months a bill has been stopped in the Senate that tightens the penalties in the matter of poaching and establishes a general ban on professional fishing, allowing it, however, in many fresh waters, that is in all those basins where historically it has a tradition, an economic and a food and wine chain to be preserved, as well as in all the brackish and lagoon waters where professional fishermen usually work.

In practice, explains Fipsas, the Italian Federation of sport fishing for underwater activities, “as well as in lagoon and brackish waters, it will be possible to continue to set nets and pots in all those Italian lakes where professional fishing has an evident relevance and where it was previously exercised on the basis of the respective territorial regulations “. For the federation, which brings together the largest number of sport fishermen, the new, tougher rules are the only means to combat poaching that endangers sport fishing and its related activities. It involves 2 million people, a thousand points of sale and a turnover of around 400 million euros a year. Other associations are strongly opposed to the new rules because they would end up penalizing the very sector they would like to protect.

Currently the crime of poaching is included in article 40 of law 154 of 2016 which provides for fines from 2,000 to 12,000 euros and prison sentences of up to two years. «It is not a sufficient deterrent», says Marco Falciano, «but new laws would not be necessary if the crime of conspiracy were challenged to poachers, which provides for much more substantial penalties. These are real criminal organizations that deal with the entire supply chain, from fishing to the falsification of transport documents and trade in fish markets, including Italian ones ”.

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