H2O Magazine

EXCLUSIVE FISHING RIGHTS FROM THE MIDDLE AGES ONWARDS

The study of the evolution of freshwater fishing in Italy and Europe is strictly linked to the history of the nations themselves.
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Fishing Rights

The fact that so many laws concerning this activity were passed and cancelled everywhere means that fishing was to have great economical importance in Italy after the fall of the Roman empire. Around the year 1000 some provisions were made to protect those who claimed possession of the fish in the first breeding farms and the Justinian Institutes established the principle of the freedom of fishing for everyone and the right of “occupation” of the fish caught; in other words the fish was nobody’s property until it was caught, after which it belonged to the fisherman. Some historians state that the exclusive fishing right was born to protect the first private fish farms, then extended to the nearby areas and so forth…. These forms of reserves began with the usurpation by established authorities, such as kings, princes, feudal lords, who withdrew entire stretches of rivers or basins from free fishing. At a certain moment these feudal lords arrogated to themselves the right to be the only ones who could fish in some areas.

Fishing Rights in the Middle Ages

The difficult economical conditions under which the poor classes lived in the Middle Ages kept even those for which fishing was the essential means of subsistence from rebelling against the establishment of restraints which in fact prevented them from fishing. On the other hand, the establishment of these reserves happened gradually and initially involved just some stretches of rivers, therefore at the beginning this limitation was bearable for the citizens. This slow usurpation succeeded in its intent not to cause too much discontent in the populations involved.

In its great sagacity, the Church immediately understood the importance of taking possession of the natural resources coming from waters, thence of the exclusivity of their exploitation, whereby they frequently carried out actions to obtain exclusive fishing rights by having them handed over to them voluntarily. In this way the Church, which did not limit the freedom of fishing  directly, but just replaced the first usurpers, could never be accused of having limited the  chances of fishing for the population, though it was actually responsible for it.

Fishing reserves and Church

There were many donations of titles and rights to the church everywhere, in all European countries, and around the year 1300 the various ecclesiastical organizations owned most of the fishing reserves. It must be objectively acknowledged that the Church promoted, like in other fields, a certain culture and respect for the river, which would have surely been more difficult with princes and feudal lords. 

As already mentioned, these fishing rights were often donated to religious communities by the princes themselves; such an example happened in 711 by Romualdo II, Duke of Benevento, who donated  an artificial lake and a stretch of river in the neighbourhood to the church of S. Sofia in Ponticello. Another case happened in 753 when the King of Longobards, Astolfo, gave half of the fish-ponds in the Mantuan territory to the abbey of Nonantola as a present. The document of this donation further states that Ottone, King of Mantua, in 813, ordered that the fishermen of Mantua and Bondeno should give half of their catch to the abbey of  Nonantola.

Like the exclusive hunting rights in vast territories, the exclusive fishing right became more and more a compensation for the services rendered or for certain political advantages. In 919, Berengario gave Rotherio, Deacon of Pavia, the exclusive fishing right in a stretch of the river Ticino and in 1014 Henry I granted the bishop of Novara the fishing right in the Toce river and in the watercourses of the Ossola valley.

Fishing Rights in the Southern Italy

In southern Italy, on the contrary, these gifts were less frequently bestowed by the feudal lords, probably because the king’s authority was less significant there, but in 1158 the law called “Diet of Roncaglia” tried to regulate the cession of river stretches and above all fishing areas which were often rented. In fact, entire rivers or lakes were often rented to fishermen on payment of a fee. In 1170, for instance, the bishops of Lodi rented the fishermen the fishing rights that the emperor had bestowed upon them, thus cashing in a fee.

Once the king’s government had fallen and after the peace of Constance in 1183, Frederick I renounced all the feudal prerogatives, including the exclusive fishing rights, for the Communes. Nevertheless, most of them were in the hands of the ecclesiastics, churches, monasteries, bishop’s refectories, which, in spite of professing Christian principles, were unwilling to give up these privileges in favour of  the poor fishermen. The Communes did not always succeed in making their will prevail against the ecclesiastics who held these privileges, as this aim of theirs was hindered by the citizens’ religious faith as well as by the ever fearful ecclesiastical authority.

Frederick I’s renunciation was then in many cases just a formal act. As a confirmation of this, let us mention the example of 1161, when Frederick I gave up his fishing rights on the river Po from the mouth of the Agogna river to that of the Ticino, as well as those on the Ticino river and on the lakes of Lugano and Como for the Communes, but the latter was not put into effect till the middle of 1500. It must be said that even the Communes, after inheriting these privileges, were then themselves the authors of speculations which were similar to those carried out by the feudal lords and by the ecclesiastical organizations. For instance, in 1307 the commune of Novara entrusted a private person with the fishing right in the Ossola valley and on the river Toce (which had once belonged to the bishop of Novara following an imperial concession) for 9 years.

Fishing Rights in the Modern Era

During the period of Lordship the system of exploitation did not change radically and the different foreign dominations, the Spanish, French and Austrian ones, did not modify the structure of the legal status in the domestic waters, in fact the only variations were the beneficiaries’ names. The fishing rights were often divided and ceded separately, as happened in the rivers Adda and Ticino. On 11th March 1689 Charles II, King of Spain and duke of Milan, granted the Marquis Don Giorgio Clerici, in exchange for a payment in pesos, the  right to fish in various stretches of the Adda and Ticino rivers but kept others back. Later on, the private fishing rights were acknowledged and protected by the Italian law n° 3706 of 1877. With substantial modifications the laws of 1880, 1884 and 1921 slowly led to the almost total cancellation of these rights for the public and in the decree of 27th  February 1936 the owners of exclusive fishing rights were obliged to improve and protect the fish stock under penalty of  loss of such right in case of non-observance.

Unfortunately the rest of the story and the present condition of our rivers are clearly noticeable every time we go fishing.

Giorgio Cavatorti

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