It is 6 in the morning in the fishing port of Ajaccio, in Corsica, and already the sea air is getting lighter. In the early morning hours, Xavier d'Orasio steers his pointu, a traditional boat that glides slowly on a waveless sea. Barely time to smoke a cigarette, the fisherman already cuts his engine. This is where his nets are waiting for him. Xavier d'Orasio pulls them up by hand. He pulls, sings, forces, blows. He says he is getting old. For fifty years he has repeated the same gestures, in the same gulf, on the same boat. But one thing has changed: there are far fewer lobsters. “Before, we used to catch 10 or 15 kilos each time here," recalls the fisherman, the first representative of the Ajaccio fishermen. “Now, if we take 2 kilos, we are happy.”
Soon, a first lobster appears, tangled in the nets, then two... then six in total, one of which is already dead, and another, too small, thrown back into the sea. Xavier d'Orasio "untangles" them one by one. They flap their tails and stridulate, their warning cry. The man will sell them for 60 euros a kilo to a reseller at the Ajaccio market. "That will pay the diesel and the aperitif, he laughs. At one time, he was supporting three families with this boat. Now, he fishes alone. Or almost. "Usually, there is always my seagull with me, it comes as soon as I go to sea."
For the past fifty years, lobsters have been disappearing. The queen species, which provides 80% of Corsican fishermen around 70% of their income, has declined sharply. From 300 tons in the 1950s, annual catches have fallen to around 65 tons. The correlation with overfishing is commonly recognized. Another triggering element: the replacement of the creel by the nylon net, starting in the 1960s. Strong nets are much more productive. What followed was a vicious circle. With the considerable increase in price, between 50 and 100 euros per kilo today, and a strong commercial demand linked to the development of tourism, lobster fishing remains profitable, and continues despite the collapse of stocks. It has reached a situation of overexploitation even with the practice of artisanal fishing that is the cultural and economic heritage of the island.
The collapse of the populations of Palinurus elephas, an endangered species, is not only a Corsican issue. It affects other Mediterranean fisheries—Sardinia, Balearic Islands—as well as Brittany, which was also a major lobster fishing area. The fall was even more vertiginous, from 1,000 tons per year after the war to less than 30 tons in the 2000s. Since 2007, drastic measures have been taken, with success: a vast protected reserve, a ban on fishing grained females (carrying their eggs), a minimum size of 110 mm... Since then, catches have tripled, rising to 90 tons in 2021.
In Corsica, fishermen are also making efforts. But these have managed, for the moment, only to stabilize the populations at a very low level. "In the 1980s, Corsica fished a lot, we were the first French department to produce lobsters. The fishermen became aware of this, and limits had to be set," says Gérard Romiti, president of the National Fisheries Committee, who is originally from Bastia. At the initiative of professionals, no-fishing zones were created around the island. Fishing is closed between October and March. And since 2012, it is no longer possible to catch a lobster whose cephalothorax measures less than 90 mm—the minimum size for it to have reproduced at least once.
Are these measures sufficient? Are they respected?
In Ajaccio, home to the largest fishermen group in Corsica, Xavier d'Orasio was fined five years ago for opposing control on the size of lobsters at the market.
"The size must be respected, but I measure it by eye, as I have always done," he retorts. Here, we don't have big lobsters, if we listened to them, we would throw them all away."
Fishing smaller and smaller individuals would be a sign of overfishing, according to scientists, which further reduces the reproductive capacity of the species. For all that, "something must be done," says D'Orasio. We are thinking about creating a restricted area," he says. “The best thing would be to stop fishing lobster for two or three years, but for that to happen, we would have to all agree... and be helped. It is a loss of income, I did not get rich with fishing!”
Further South, in Bonifacio, the Office of the Corsican Environment (OEC) is working in close collaboration with fishermen to adjust the restriction measures as well as possible. This morning, it was on the boat Le Nomade, owned by Maurice Piro, that the agents embarked to measure each lobster brought on board and to mark those that are "undersized" before releasing them. Some will be recaptured several months or years later, when they have grown. This long-term follow-up allows them to study the lobsters' growth and their movements.
Maurice Piro is happy to play along. "We cooperate because they help us preserve the coastline. I am part of an old family of fishermen, I was raised in this. Our elders had a fishing area here, they knew how to limit themselves, "says the fisherman representative, who has a large tattoo of Poseidon on his chest.
He is one of the last fishermen of Corsica who knows how to make traditional nets, with rush and myrtle. He shows us a video of his 82-year-old father, who braided the long plant stems between his fingers, duly picked and dried. Between 2007 and 2010, the fishermen conducted an experiment with the OEC to try to reclaim this technique, which is very selective and sustainable. But it only took a few decades for the know-how to be lost. Young people no longer knew how to use the traps," says Marie-Catherine Santoni, a scientist at the OEC. And the profitability was too low: lobsters are now too scarce to be able to catch enough of them this way.
At the same time, the Aligosta project, the result of a partnership between the OEC, the University of Corsica, the University of Cergy-Pontoise, the Stareso (underwater and oceanographic research station, based in Calvi) and the Regional Fisheries Committee, is trying to refine knowledge on the species. Notably, they have observed a relationship between the size of the crustacean and its fecundity—the larger the female, the more eggs she produces... They are also studying the migration of the larvae, transparent and tiny, which drift with the currents for five or six months before the juveniles settle on the ground.
"It is therefore not enough to manage a small stock at the regional level; population exchanges concern the entire Mediterranean," continues the researcher.
Finally, climate change can add to overexploitation to increase the pressure on the species. "Climate change affects the intensity of marine currents, particularly the Ligurian-Provençal. Lobster larvae could be pushed out to sea," says Michel Marengo, scientific director of Stareso. And the warming of the waters reduces the zooplankton they feed on."
Nevertheless, "the lobster has an important renewal capacity," emphasizes Mr. Marengo. When there are strong measures of limitation and when we give it time, the results are there, both ecological and economic! The scientist lists possible "ways forward": increasing the minimum size of lobsters fished, as in Brittany. Or postponing there opening of the fishery, as decided by the fishermen of Balagne, in the north of Corsica. Another measure could be to create new protected areas, or refuge zones for the large breeding individuals.
Among the many solutions, the Stella Mare laboratory (University of Corsica and CNRS), near Bastia, is also exploring another avenue: ecological restoration. It is one of the only institutions in the world to have started to master the reproduction of this large crustacean, by obtaining some juveniles in aquariums. Breeding hundreds of small lobsters to release them in protected marine areas represents a hope for Corsican fishermen, which will probably not materialize for several years. "And if we succeed in restoring the populations, this must be accompanied by a gentle harvest, which no longer affects the capital of the species," emphasizes Antoine Aiello, director of the laboratory.
This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Le Monde on 29 July 2022 in French. It has been translated to English and lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: Corsican coastline, Bonifacio, July 13, 2022 / Credit: Kamil Zihnioglu.