Students: Alina Eerika Leinonen, Jenny Johanna Svartstroem, Liudmila Saburova

One country in European history absolutely lived and died depending on its ability to control the sea. This country was the Mistress of the Adriatic, La Serenissima, or more officially, The (Most Serene) Republic of Venice (697–1797).

From the Roman age to the early Middle Ages the territory of the lagoon was used mainly to produce salt or for other minor activities related to fishing and dredging of the coast. Beyond the mullet and eels of the lagoon, and its saltpans, Venice produced nothing – no wheat, no timber, little meat. 

Fishermen often associate the lagoon area with a rich and fruitful ‘countryside’. They also use the definition of countryside to emphasize its contrast with the open sea, which is experienced as the space of danger and otherness.

Although fishing nowadays counts for only a small part in Veneto’s economy it is a big part of everyday life of the people living in the proximity of Venice lagoon. Fishing in the Adriatic Sea and in the lagoon has provided sustenance and has left its mark on Venetian culture.

The Republic of Venice started to regulate the fishing activities since 1173, when the regulated body ‘Magistratura della Giustizia’ was founded; its role was to oversee all the trades and establish legislation for measures, weights, prices, and other aspects of business activities. There were three important points:

Firstly the authorities would control the tools and nets used for fishing. For example, if the meshes were too tight or nets were too wide they have to be forbidden because they were considered as a danger to the renewal of the resources.

The second principle covered the regulation of fishing times: fishermen had to respect a seasonal calendar that specified when various nets were allowed or banned.

The last element announced a chart of prohibited fishing grounds, such as barene, where the young fish can be preserved as the important element for renewing fish stocks.

In 1261 the ‘Giustizia Vecchia’ was created, and it was charged with supervising fishing, carrying out quota checks, checking hygiene at the fish markets, and announcing the criteria, timetables, and fishing methods. 

The checks and restrictions were very strict, and measures were issued. 

At the end of the 1700s the legislation prohibited the locals from meeting by boat to buy fish before they arrived at the public fishmongers.

In 1510 Supervisor of the Waters was formed which stayed in power until the fall of the Republic in 1797. The fishermen themselves started to take part in the commission activities with decision-making powers. The authorities showed close attention to the equipment used for fishing, and especially the netting which had to be approved by the Office of the ‘Giustizia Vecchia’. 

The laguna is an area of about 550 km² between lands and sea. Five fishing communities, Chioggiotti, Muranesi, Buranelli, Povegiotti and Nicolotti, historically divided up their activities within it. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the fishermen were numerous: in 1796 around 4,000 Buranelli and around 10,000 Chioggiotti.

One part of the canals, palude or barene was developed to accommodate fish farms, which lead to a kind of aquaculture activities arranged in the fish farms. Until the seventeenth century, the whole fisheries territories were defined as valli da pesca, where both fish farms and the ponds were created and where fishermen went fishing. For example, the Venetian authorities listed 62 valli da pesca in the laguna in 1535

These aquatic farms were located in the north of Chioggia and near the eastern end of the island of Lido. The records show that patrician families and monasteries owned a large number of the fish farms and the rents collected from these fisheries went exclusively to the community.

After the Serenissima Republic fell in 1797 Veneto region came under Austrian rule, in 1815 as part of Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia. This led to abolishing a lot of infrastructure regarding control of rules and regulations of fishing. For example, fishermen’s corporation was ceased and fishing licences were no longer needed. Political instability and poverty led to a situation where private interest raised over common interest.

Fishing shifted from regulated trade to free activity. One example of how things changed is that fishermen started to sell fish straight to consumers without intermediary of fish markets.

1866 Veneto region was joined with unified Italy. Italy’s first fishery legislation became active in 1880 but without much endorsement. There were also many problems after this, such as fry fishery, small mesh size nets and the use of dynamite in fishing. The unsustainable exploitation of resources of the Venetian lagoon had started.

With modern gear our ability to fish has increased

Licia Finotto from Museum of Adriatic Zoology “G. Olivi” talks about changes in fishing gear over the last centuries.

In the 20th and 21st centuries things have changed for the better when it comes to regulations, but a lot of work still needs to be done. Modern gear and the increase of the population on the other hand has have a negative effect on the sustainability of fishing. 

Establishing of newer regulations started in the 20th century with the EU regulations. Even though the EU regulations have changed through time, it is the EU regulations that control fishing in Veneto and Venice today. A fishing license is required to be able to do commercial fishing and the fishermen’s gear is monitored.

Gradually forbidding gillnet fishing (1998-2003) and regulating fishing of juveniles are examples of steps taken towards more sustainable fishing. Trawling in mid-water and bottom-water is not allowed during a period of 35-40 days during the summer. Outside this period it is allowed only 4 days a week.

A significant difference from the politically unstable period, after the fall of the Serenissima republic, is the way of enforcing the rules in the modern age. Before the modern age, the enforcement of rules was inadequate. Now more resources are used for enforcement and the constantly evolving technology has also played an important role.

Today there is satellite monitoring and registers of fishing fleets. Training is required to be able to get a fishing license. The National Unit of Fishery Inspectors and National Fishery Control Centre are in place to make sure all the rules and regulations are being followed.

During the 21st century there has been an increased interest in collecting historical data in sustainability and recovery of the ecosystem in the Venetian lagoon. 

The historical data is being studied for understanding the long-term effects of human exploitation of the sea.


Norwich, J. J. (2003). A history of Venice. Penguin UK.

Rivoal, S. (2021). “Enclosure within a Closed Sea? The Fisheries against the Commons in the Republic of Venice in the Eighteenth Century”. Journal for the History of Environment and Society, 6, 35-60 

Silvestri, S., Pellizzato, M., & Boatto, V. (2006). Fishing across the centuries: What prospects for the Venice lagoon?

Fortibuoni T., Gertwagen R., Giovanardi O. & Raicevich S. (2014). “The progressive deregulation of fishery management in the Venetian Lagoon after the fall of the Repubblica Serenissima: food for thought on sustainability”. Global Bioethics, 25(1), 42-55, DOI: 10.1080/11287462.2014.894707

Scientific Cooperation to Support Responsible Fisheries in the Adriatic Sea), General outline of marine capture fisheries legislation and regulations in the Adriatic Sea countries, https://www.faoadriamed.org/html/Legislation/LegITAComp.html, read 29.10.2022

Fortibuoni, T., Libralato, S., Arneri, E., Giovanardi, O., Solidoro, C., & Raicevich, S. (2017). “Fish and fishery historical data since the 19th century in the Adriatic Sea”, Mediterranean. Scientific data, 4(1), 1-13