The Tonnara of Camogli and Punta Chiappa Going Strong After 400 Years
The last working tonnara fishing net in the northern Mediterranean is anchored between the seaside resort of Camogli and the Punta Chiappa headland a few miles south. Punta Chiappa –pronounced “kyahp-pah” is a tongue of solid stone that juts several hundred yards into the Mediterranean.
For the last four hundred years or so Camogli’s fishermen have set out with their gozzi – small, wooden fishing boats – or more modern craft at least twice a day from April to September to haul in the tonnara.
A tonnara is a complex tuna-fishing trap. The net is suspended from floats and two (or more) small boats. The principle behind the tonnara is simple. Fish swim along the shore, enter the maze of nets that constitute the tonnara and are pulled up before they can find their way out.
The technology has not changed much since the 1600s. A team of anywhere from five to eight men, balanced on the boats set at each end of the trap, pull the net in by hand. Once the net is fully up, they flip the fish into one of the two boats. They then sort the catch into crates. The crates are loaded onto another boat, usually tethered to the larger of the two “net boats” or waiting nearby.
Understandably, in the last 30 years or so the natural fiber nets once made from reeds that grow wild on the Monte di Portofino have been substituted with hemp or nylon nets. This doesn’t mean the fishermen no longer spend months assembling and repairing these nets, which are hundreds of yards long. The old wooden gozzi of yesteryear have been equipped with motors these days, and are often flanked by modern fishing boats.
Tuna has largely disappeared from the Mediterranean due to over-fishing and pollution. Nonetheless every day that it’s in operation – meaning spring through summer – the tonnara of Camogli and Punta Chiappa produces a variety of flavorful small and medium-sized market fish. The most common are gar, sea bass and John Dory. It used to be proverbial that local residents and chefs stationed on the shore or on the steep hills above the net would get out their binoculars and spy glasses to watch what was being pulled in, and prepare their lunch or dinner menus accordingly.
That’s a thing of the past with one exception: whenever I’m here that’s precisely what I do. Then I head down to the port in Camogli and buy fish that’s still alive – what I call “flipping-fresh fish.”
The fisherman’s co-op that operates the tonnara also has a fish shop in an alleyway (14 Salita Priaro) near the port. You can’t miss it. Just follow the crowds up the steep stairway.
Read more about Camogli, the history, culture, food, wine, hikes, treks, restaurants, food shops, best coffee, best focaccia, best Portofino-area discoveries and more in our books, Food Wine Italian Riviera & Genoa and Enchanted Liguria