Venetian Lagoon

Venetian Lagoon (photo by Valerie Broussard 2008)

”It’s a war, finding fresh, local fish. Only 53,000 of us are left here, and I worry that we’re losing our identity as Venetians. Much more than our fish — our collective memories, our dialect, our culture, our flavors and our tastes,” says Cesare Benelli, chef of the Venice restaurant Al Covo, as quoted in a New York Times article (Apple 2004). He is also one of the organizers of L’Associazione dei Ristoranti della Buona Accoglienza, an alliance of chefs and restaurateurs committed to the preservation of Venetian culinary tradition. Mr. Benelli’s comments touch upon the immense cultural and historical significance of seafood to the Veneto region of Italy. Restaurants situated on the Venetian lagoon, such as Al Covo and those we visited–Al Fontego dei Pescatori in Venice (see figure 1) and Osteria all’Arena in Chioggia–prominently feature a variety of seafood on their menus.

From the beginning of her existence, Venice has been fighting Mother Nature in order to survive. The port city is built on a foundation of wooden piles, larch and oak tree trunks driven into compacted clay beneath a layer of sand and mud, which were left behind when an ancient plain subsided. The wood has since petrified, turning into stone (Timeout Venice 2007). Spread out over 118 small islands, with roughly 200 canals and 400 bridges, Venice is situated on the northeast coast of Italy, in the northernmost part of the Adriatic Sea (Venice in Peril). The shallow waters of the Venetian lagoon meet the Adriatic Sea at 3 inlets: Lido, Malamocco and Chioggia (see figure 2). The controversial Mose Project (Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico or in English, Experimental Electromechanical Module), which will attempt to control floodwaters, is under construction. Some argue that the lack of free flow of water between the lagoon and the Adriatic Sea will kill aquatic life:

“The Venice lagoon is an inlet of the Adriatic Sea, with access to sea waters largely restricted by a series of sand bars at the lagoon’s entrance. Formerly, substantial freshwater inputs flowed through the lagoon as well, but over the past several centuries most of the freshwater has been diverted to the Adriatic. Today the lagoon’s water possesses a salinity level nearly as high as that of the Adriatic. Waters from the Adriatic Sea circulate through the lagoon, currently providing the primary source of lagoon waters. Without continuous exchange with the Adriatic, the lagoon’s waters would stagnate and become uninhabitable for many of the organisms now residing within the lagoon.” (Scearce 2007)

Some of those species–native, introduced and farm-raised– in the Venetian lagoon and the Adriatic Sea include the grass goby fish (Zosterisessor ophiocephalus), mussel (Mytilus galloprovincialis) (Livingstone et al. 1995), crab (Carcinus aestuarii) (Bayarri et al 2001), and cultured Manila clam (Tapes philippinarum) (Boscolo et al. 2007).

As we learned at the Conservificio Allevatori Molluschi (CAM), in Chioggia, due to the current state of the Venetian lagoon and the Northern Adriatic Sea, an insufficient supply of seafood to the region cannot keep up with demand. Over fishing and industrial pollution have caused decline in stocks, which are defined as “a group of individuals or populations in a species occupying a well-defined spatial range independent of other stocks of the same species. A stock will form the basis of a distinct fishery defined management unit in terms of season and area” (Marine Conservation Society Fish Online). But to meet the demands of both locals and tourists, companies such as CAM are sourcing in other parts of the world: oysters from Normandy, crabs from the English Channel and lobsters from South Africa. Our guide at CAM (he may have been the owner, if not the director) called this phenomenon the “irony of a global economy,” yet did not seem sympathetic towards the crisis, nor did he offer any solutions. Sadly, scientists warn that at current rates of consumption, over fishing and pollution, the entire world’s supply of seafood could run out by the year 2048 (Worm et al. 2006).

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, specifically the 2003 Fishery and Aquaculture Country Profile for Italy, of the total seafood supply of 1,446,000 tons, only 472,162 tons were produced in Italy. Very little was exported (162,189 tons) so to keep up with demand, 1,136,065 tons of seafood were imported (see website link). These statistics support what was discussed during our visit to CAM regarding over fishing and supply versus demand.

Founded in 1969, CAM is in the business of purifying seafood by removing contamination through the use of technology. The company has exclusive rights to many fishing companies all over the world. All seafood processed at CAM is bought by the company, purified, and then distributed to their customers: wholesalers, restaurants, and grocery store chains. “With specific regard to live bivalve molluscs, Italy has made additional sanitation requirements of imported stocks. Currently, the Italian government requires that all imports be sent to depuration centres before being dispersed into the common markets” (Agri-Food Trade Service of Canada 2005). This law conveniently provides business for CAM, a private enterprise. I question which came first, the law, or CAM. When I asked whether CAM has contributed to cleaning up and restoring the lagoon, our guide responded that conservation efforts are the government’s responsibility and not up to private industry. Could it be that it is in CAM’s best interest not to buy local seafood? Are locally fished products subject to the same purification laws as imported seafood? During the visit to CAM, I felt terribly sad and concerned as our guide proudly showed off his South African lobsters destined for a nearby restaurant.

Initially, CAM’s purification tanks were filled with sea water pumped in from areas of the sea far offshore. Thirty years ago, pumping water in to shore was considered innovative. When mollusks were brought into the CAM facilities, they were classified by zone: for Zone A, there was no fear of contamination, and zone B, was a bit more questionable. Zone B mollusks had the possibility of being contaminated by bacteria such as salmonella, as a result of agricultural waste of cows and pigs that is dumped into the lagoon. According to our guide, there is a low risk of contamination in the waters near Chiogga because of the distance from Venice, yet water must be analyzed on a monthly basis. Technological advances have had a huge impact on the seafood industry. CAM developed a process which controls the temperature of the water, filters out silt, sand and ammonia, and uses ultra violet rays to purify. In the past CAM added iodine or chlorine to the water (2 parts per million), but discovered that the product suffered. Now no chemicals are used, but instead rely on a system that continuously filters the water (personal stage notes 2008).

Other than from animal waste, how else did the area’s waters become polluted in the first place? Agricultural run-off is blamed for high levels of nitrogen (Franco, Perelli and Scattolin 1996), while the presence of dioxins (toxic chemicals), PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and HCBs (hexachlorobenzene) (Bayarri et al.) are due to industrial activities: petrochemical and vinyl chloride plants in Porto Marghera (see figure 3) west of Venice (Greenpeace 1995). Multiple studies point to the Idrija mercury (Hg) mine in western Slovenia as the cause of contamination (La Marca et al.). The Isonzo River, which flows through western Slovenia, into northeastern Italy and then emptying into the Gulf of Trieste “has been the largest contributor of Hg into the northern Adriatic Sea since the 16th century” (Piani, Covelli and Biester 2005). I attempted to find research indicating whether pollution is actually killing the organisms in the Adriatic Sea in addition to contaminating their flesh, but was unable to find research that suggests which of the two is more prevalent.

Despite the serious consequences of ignoring the fact that most of the world’s seafood could become extinct, even recent cookbook authors continue to perpetuate the romantic, outdated idea that equates Venice and the lagoon with an abundant supply of fresh (and implied local) fish:
“The other basic food of Venice and the lagoon is fish, and this also can be appreciated at Rialto. The selection is always bewildering; fish and seafood of every kind, colour and size…Ask the fishmonger how best to cook any of his exhibits and he, and the Venetian woman next to you, will tell you just to fry them, boil them or eat them as they are, so fresh are they from the sea.” (del Conte 2002)

As ignorant consumers blissfully dine on seafood in Venice (I was once one of them), unaware that the food on their plates may be in danger of extinction or was flown in from another part of the world, the problem only gets worse. Unfortunately, this crisis is not limited to the Venetian lagoon and Adriatic Sea.

Journalist Charles Clover criticizes high-profile Japanese sushi chef and restaurateur Nobu Matsuhisa, whose cookbooks include recipes calling for species of fish- abalone, Caspian caviar, Chilean sea bass, grouper, red snapper, sole and tuna- all considered vulnerable by multiple environmental watch groups. These species also appear on his restaurant menus (Clover 2005). In 2002, the National Environmental Trust, an American NGO (non-governmental organization) created an ad campaign “Take a Pass on Chilean Sea Bass,” asking chefs and wholesalers in the U.S. to temporarily halt sales of the over fished (often illegally) species until stocks return to healthy levels (Common Dreams website). Over 1000 chefs took the pledge to remove it from their menus. It was them, after all, who were able to take the species formerly known as Patagonian Tooth fish, and transform it into an overnight sensation, a highly popular and desired fish. They can and often do influence food choices of the public.

I do not recall seeing any sort of campaign promoting local seafood in the windows of Venice restaurants, although my Italian-speaking classmates tell me our indulgent lunch of mixed, fried seafood in Chioggia was entirely local according to the chef. Local, but unclear if these species are abundant, healthy and sustainably fished. The efforts of concerned chefs, scientists and activists, combined with initiatives like Slow Food’s biennial conference Slow Fish, which aims to educate, promote and protect, all raise awareness of the crisis at hand.

As a native of Louisiana, a predominantly Catholic state on the Gulf of Mexico, I see many parallels between the Cajun and Venetian cultures, and even the low-lying, swampy landscape, and efforts to control Mother Nature through the use of floodgates (Cajun Country website). The people–including my father’s side of the family–who refer to themselves as Cajuns (derived from the word Acadian) are descendants of French settlers who when living in Acadia, present day Nova Scotia, Canada, were exiled in the 18th century by the English. Many ended up in Louisiana (family oral history and Acadian Cajun website). To both cultures, the local cuisine and a fair amount of the economy revolve around the seafood industry. Shrimp Creole, crawfish etouffee, oyster poboys, seafood gumbo and crabmeat au gratin are all dishes I grew up eating and still crave. On Fridays during Lent, one can drive around Lafayette, Louisiana, the center of Cajun culture, spotting phrases such as “Lenten Special: Crawfish Pizza” on restaurant signs and menus. Not exactly a typical meal of my ancestors, but tasty nevertheless. For the Venetians, their culture of seafood dates back much further and is deeply embedded in their identity:

“More than 2,000 years ago, ancient populations used to breed sea fish, in particular seabass and seabream, which were considered very valuable and were quite popular in recipe books such as the “De Re Coquinaria” by Apicio of the first century B.C. The end of the Roman Empire led to the disappearance of this type of aquaculture and it was not until the twelfth century that a resurgence of freshwater aquaculture was seen, starting in central Europe, mainly in Italy. It was only in the fifteenth century that extensive, large-scale aquaculture was seen in the lagoons of the Adriatic: vallicultura (aquaculture developed in coastal lagoons). These activities were promoted by the religious practice of prohibiting the consumption of meat on Fridays. Thereafter, in the nineteenth century, the culture of shellfish became common practice, particularly in the Western Mediterranean and the Adriatic.” (FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Italy)

In an odd way, I felt especially at home in Venice during Carnevale. Louisiana has its own version known as Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday. The excitement, energetic atmosphere, costumes, public drunkenness and tourist-packed streets remind me of New Orleans during the same pre-Lent period.

But the abundance of seafood in both Venice and Louisiana is taken for granted. If awareness of the current state of seafood and its possibility of extinction can be heightened, there is hope that we will not lose our cuisines and our traditions we hold so dear. NGOs can lobby governments for stricter fishing regulations and to push them to reduce allowable levels of pollution. It is ultimately the responsibility of the consumer to educate himself, to become a co-producer. He can boycott companies which do not employ sustainable practices. These same companies can, in turn listen to their customers and make positive changes. The media can expose those who don’t do the right thing. Yet food industry professionals such as chefs, food writers and retail buyers are in a position to influence consumers, giving them the opportunity to make choices that will ultimately destroy or save our natural resources. I’d like to be optimistic and hope that it’s the latter.

Photo: First course of seafood at Al Fontego dei Pescatori, Venice, Italy. Photo taken by Valerie Broussard on February 5, 2008.

Figure 2: Graphic is courtesy of Italy’s Ministry of Public Works, Venice Water Authority, Consorzio Venezia Nuova. The red circles indicate the three inlets where the Adriatic Sea and the Venetian Lagoon meet, sites of a system of underwater floodgates (The Mose Project) currently being built to help control flooding in Venice. (http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2002/venice-1106.html)

Figure 3: Porto Marghera, Italy http://www.apat.gov.it/site/it-IT/IdeAmbiente/Sezioni/Articoli/Documenti/0809_2005_art_08.html?PageID=6422

Bibliography available upon request