During the day, Denny Covezzi works in a fishing equipment store and Andrea Mocchi in a factory. But at dusk they dress in heavy gray uniforms and set out in their little boat to patrol the river.
They’re looking for anything suspicious: nets, traps, maybe a van parked by the bank. They hear a rumble through the bushes and Covezzi brings the boat closer to check: nothing. “It must have been an animal,” he says. Later, they notice something in the river: small homemade traps made of wire and plastic bottles. They take the traps to the boat and break them.
Pirate hunters, as they are known in the local media, hunt for poachers in Italy’s Po River Delta. Flowing into the Adriatic Sea, the Brackish Po has one of the largest deltasBut until recently it has been plagued by poachers.
That is beginning to change. In the past three years, the efforts of volunteers like Covezzi and Mocchi to cut down the nets and help identify criminals have caused a series of research in poachers by the Carabinieri and the Italian Forest Service, and authorities in Romania, Spain, France and the United Kingdom. The result has been a reduction in the number of poachers by about a third since the peak of its activity between 2013 and 2016.
The success is particularly impressive given how profitable poaching has become here. Illegal fishing has long story in the area, but until the 1960s it was mainly carried out by poor families who lived on eels. In recent years, however, organized criminal groups he elevated it to an industrial level, using intimidation and a network of lookouts. “They can catch up to 20,000 kg (20 tonnes) in a single night,” says the coordinator of the volunteer group, Alessandro Pagliarin.
Police have struggled to monitor the delta, which covers 1,400 square kilometers, leaving poachers free to roam. In its heyday, poaching was worth as much as 5 million euros (4.6 million pounds) a year, with about 200 people involved. “Can you imagine a normal company that makes so much profit with such a low investment?” says Stefano Testa, from the Carabinieri anti-poaching unit.
Although Italians consume relatively little freshwater fish, poachers sell carp, catfish and sheatfish (which can reach more than two meters in length) to Eastern Europe, where demand is high. Testa says the gangs are organized in a pyramidal structure, with area managers supervising the workers and “intermediaries between area managers who fish in Italy and distributors in Eastern Europe.” According to Testa, many of the poachers hail from the danube delta in Romania, where they used to fish illegally until the Romanian authorities cracked down in the early 2010s. “The Po delta is similar to the Danube delta, so they can use the same techniques,” says Testa.
Those techniques include use electro-stunners made from car batteries or pulling chemicals in the water, before using trawls to catch fish, with devastating effects on the ecosystem. There are also concerns for those who eat fish. “Fish from the Po river can be very contaminated, it is not supposed to be eaten,” says Michele Valeriani of Torpedo Group, an association of local recreational fishermen that raises awareness on environmental issues.
Recreational fishermen were the first to notice, about a decade ago, that something murky was happening in the area. “Suddenly, we found dozens of dead fish along the canal locks,” says Valeriani. “50 fish are unlikely to die naturally at the same time.” They were suspicious of poaching and patrols were soon formed.
There were early successes. “At first, the poachers were also active during the day, because there were no controls,” says Covezzi. “But now we force them to act at night.” Volunteers have also confiscated nets and released thousands of fish.
Back on the boat with Covezzi and Mocchi, they come across a carp and ask the fisherman to show them his license. He is not a poacher: It is not uncommon for recreational fishermen to spend the night on the shore of the delta, and they are required by law to release their catch.
Mocchi, who is married with children, says the night patrols are affecting his family life. Covezzi, on the other hand, says his girlfriend is cheering him on. “He often insists on accompanying her.”
They are pleased that organized crime in the delta appears to be in retreat, but it is too early to celebrate. “Recent history taught us that these groups withdraw when they feel under scrutiny, only to reappear when we let our guard down,” says Pagliarin. “Our job is to keep patrolling. We are the eyes in the delta ”.
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