MONOPLI: Off the rocky coast of south-eastern Italy, two divers from the financial police make back and forth in the blue waters, under the curious gaze of holidaymakers.
They are not looking for any buried treasure but for evidence of the hunt for mussels known as sea dates, a forbidden mollusc that has become a status symbol and whose poaching is irreversibly destroying the Italian coasts.
Just below the surface, the limestone rock that harbours countless organisms is ripped open by hundreds of man-made holes, proof that unscrupulous poachers have broken, crushed or even blasted the reef to extract the date mussels found there.
“These men put on their oxygen cylinders and their masks, come down… with a hammer and a chisel and start breaking the rock,” said Arcangelo Raffaele Gennari, commander of the financial police in Monopoli, a port city in Puglia. “There are cases where we have seized mini jackhammers,” he added to AFP, assuring that “even explosives were used”.
Fueling this traffic is soaring black market prices for the lowly brown ‘Lithophaga lithophane, which can fetch nearly 200 euros ($205) a kilo.
Poachers supply fish markets or restaurant owners who black market to anyone wanting to show off their wealth at Sunday lunches with a platter of raw seafood or speciality spaghetti.
“If you think that in an hour and a half or two if you find the right place, you can get eight or nine kilos out… you have made an exorbitant amount of money in one day,” says Mr Gennari.
Thirty years ago, marine biologist Stefano Piraino and his colleagues discovered that more than 40% of the western coast of Puglia was badly damaged by the harvest of date mussels.
For this reason, Italy banned the collection, sale and consumption of these mussels in 1998, followed in 2006 by a European-wide ban.
Returning to the same areas this year, Mr Piraino has so far found fewer sites with recent damage but has little hope for already destroyed reefs.
Time is not enough to heal the rock surface “all white, bare” and devoid of life, he said: “It’s a devastating impact.”
The growth of the date mussel is very slow, it takes three decades to reach only five centimetres, which means that once fished it is not quickly replaced.
But the impact on the delicate marine ecosystem, where not only the reef but all the organisms that depend on it are destroyed, is even more serious.
A 2019 study by the Parthenope University of Naples revealed an average of 1,500 artificial holes per square meter in the reefs of the southwest of the Sorrentine Peninsula, damage that eventually causes the rock to collapse and damage The seabed.
Researchers are exploring ways to help reefs recover, including removing sea urchins, whose browsing prevents new vegetation from growing on the rocks or planting seedlings of tiny organisms in hopes they will spread.
But the problem is not limited to Italy, warned Mr Piraino, who called for better enforcement of the rules across the Mediterranean.
A search on TripAdvisor found sea dates shown in photos from last year at restaurants in Albania, Slovenia and Montenegro, where they are also illegal but easier to find.
In March, environmental groups hailed the six-year prison sentence for the leader of a criminal network operating in protected areas near Naples and the island of Capri – the first-ever conviction for the crime of “environmental disaster” linked to sea dates, judging that this poaching “has an irreversible impact” on the ecosystem.
The authorities are becoming more and more severe with regard to each link in the chain, from fishermen to consumers.
Last year, Puglia seized around 97 tonnes of illegal seafood, including date mussels, the largest seizure in Italy, according to environmental group Legambiente.
Most illegal fishing offences occur in Sicily, Puglia and Campania.
But the authorities cannot win the battle as long as there is a market of willing consumers.
“We have to make people understand that when you eat a plate of linguini with date mussels, an entire square meter of the ecosystem has been destroyed,” concludes Mr Piraino.