Underwater museum: how ‘Paolo the fisherman’ made the Med’s strangest sight

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As a child, Paolo Fanciulli was fascinated by underwater shipwrecks, particularly the fish and algae that lived in them. He became a fisherman in the Tuscan village of Talamone at 13 and still plies the waters at the age of 60 in his small boat, the Sirena. But in the past decade, his job has become harder, as trawling near the coast has been destroying the marine ecosystem.

The impact is devastating. “The nets are weighed down with heavy chains to be dragged on the sea bottom, so they uproot all the posidonia, the seagrass that is key to the Mediterranean ecosystem because sea bream, lobsters and red gurnards lay their eggs there,” he says.

“They don’t care. Nobody is watching,” he adds. “It’s like if a hunter burned a whole forest to catch a hare.”

While Italian law bans trawling within three nautical miles of the coast, it’s so profitable that it’s not uncommon for boats to carry on illegally at night. Some employ lookouts to warn against the coast guard, or use devices to shield their GPS signal.

Fanciulli noticed the effects of trawling as early as the 1980s: the damaged ecosystem was affecting his catch and having an impact on his livelihood. So, along with some other local fishermen and activists from Greenpeace, he blocked a commercial port in Tuscany in protest.

Paolo Fanciulli fishing in the seas off Talamone, Tuscany.

It was the beginning of a struggle that has made him something of a local celebrity. Fanciulli has destroyed trawling nets with barbed wire. He once stopped a trawler by pretending to be the police. His activism has seen him interviewed on German and Chinese TV, and people in Talamone regularly stop “Paolo il Pescatore” – Paolo the Fisherman – to inquire about his newborn son.

It also earned him enemies, he says: threats from local mafia soon made it impossible for him to sell his fish at the market.

He turned instead to what he describes as “pascaturismo“, or fishing tourism: he takes visitors out on his boat, giving them a chance to catch fish and learn about the ecological threat of trawling. He also runs a small restaurant at weekends, and sells his catch to the Gruppi di Acquisto Solidale, a collective of Italian families buying ethical products.

It wasn’t enough to stop illegal fishing, however. In 2006, a desperate Tuscan government dropped concrete blocks into the sea in an effort to disrupt the trawlers. Fanciulli says they didn’t work, however, as they were too far apart and the nets simply dragged between them.

marble sculpture by Emily Young

He got permission from Arpa, the agency for environmental protection, to drop an additional 80 blocks at his own expense. Still, however, he wasn’t satisfied, and his thoughts turned to the shipwrecks he’d loved as a boy. “I didn’t just want concrete,” he says. “I was fascinated with beautiful antiquities underwater.”

He began to wonder: what if, instead of dropping concrete blocks into the water, he dropped art?

He asked a quarry in nearby Carrara if they could donate two marble blocks that he could use to make sculptures. “They donated 100 instead.”

Via word of mouth, contributions from tourists and online crowdfunding, Fanciulli persuaded artists including Giorgio Butini, Massimo Lippi, Beverly Pepper and Emily Young to carve sculptures from the marble. Then he took them out to sea and lowered them in.

The underwater sculptures create both a physical barrier for nets and a unique underwater museum. The sculptures are placed in a circle, 4m apart, with an obelix at the centre carved by the Italian artist Massimo Catalani. Emily Young provided four sculptures, each weighing 12 tons, she calls “guardians“; nearby lies a mermaid by the young artist Aurora Vantaggiato. Lippi has contributed 17 sculptures representing Siena’s contrade, or medieval districts.

Giorgio Butini's 'Acqua'

The “museum” is open to anyone who can arrange a visit – either through guided scuba tours or by arranging their own dive.

It’s located along the Argentario section of the Tuscan coast, which has been plagued by trawling, and this year boats have been caught carrying illegal nets and fishing in protected waters.

Biologist Roberto Danovaro, who heads the Anton Dohrn research institute in Naples, likened trawling to “fishing with bombs”. “You catch the fish, but also destroy their habitat,” he says. “With no possibility of growing back because trawling is so intense.”

But the museum appears to be having some effect. Whereas 10 years ago the Posidonia was disappearing, Dr Gioia Benedettini, sea manager of Arpat, the local environmental agency, says it is now growing back.

The statues also deserve credit for helping to preserve the fishing industry, she says: they “protect the fish resources because the nursery areas of various commercial fish species are located below the coast”.

starfish on a sculpture

Marine life of all kinds appears to be returning. Algae covers the statues, and lobsters have taken up residence nearby. Talamone is a turtle recovery centre – part of the Tartalife project – and more turtles have been seen, as have dolphins. “In the past it was unusual to see dolphins near the coast,” Faniculli says. “They normally stay offshore, but as industrial fishing destroyed the seabed, they moved close to the statues because, due the repopulation, there is food.”

The museum is Fanciulli’s version of the shipwrecks he loved as a boy, and he hopes to build on its success. “We put in the first statues in 2007 but our goal is to reach 100,” he says, sensing an opportunity. “We’d like someone to help our battle in defence of the sea. Do you know if any soccer player or influencer is available?”

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