Fish as heritage: The case of mullet and farmed sea bass in the northeastern Adriatic

Fish as heritage: The case of mullet and farmed sea bass in the northeastern Adriatic

Fish is not just a fish. It can also be a means of assessing how heritage, as a particular type of imaginary, conveys social, cultural, political, and economic transformations. According to Salazar (2012), imaginaries are “socially transmitted representational assemblages that interact with people’s personal imaginings and are used as meaning-making and world-shaping devices”. In this sense, heritage is a particular type of imaginary that builds on (a version of) past events but is made and re-made in the present according to the needs of the present or future expectations (Harrison 2013). These representative assemblages associated with heritage refer not only to people and their discourses, but also to an arrangement of a wide variety of locally present non-humans, materials, things, technologies, etc. (Harrison 2020). These include, among others, seemingly very mundane non-humans such as local fish. Focusing on such ordinary aspects may nonetheless offer insight not only into technology of heritage-making, but also wider social and political concerns of the area and its potential futures. Using particular fish species to gain insight into historical and contemporary lifeworlds is not a novel approach. Kurlansky (1997) has looked at cod in this way, and Lien (2015) at farmed salmon in Norway.

The two fishes chosen to represent the heritage imaginaries in the Bay of Piran[1] in the northeastern Adriatic are the wild mullet and the farmed sea bass. Both species are considered local but each in its particular way. The mullet has acquired a local status due to its annual appearance in the Bay of Piran, where local traditions have developed around its catch. Farmed sea bass became local through the process of domestication (Lien 2015), having travelled great distances overland to end up in the bay’s mesh cages. Although there are numerous fish species in Bay of Piran, wild mullet and farmed sea bass may shed new light on how the past is used in the northeastern Adriatic, and how this affects the present and future processes, including maritime border negotiations between Slovenia and Croatia, (political) conflicts, post-socialist transition, conservation issues in the Anthropocene, future prospects for fisheries, as well as local-global tensions more broadly. As Lien (2015: 1) notes, we have ignored the ways in which non-human species have histories too. Drawing inspiration from various critical approaches to heritage and our ethnographic material, we want to ask: What kinds of intertwined stories emerge if we dare to follow these two fishes?

Fig. 1: Research area of the Bay of Piran, where mullets gather during the winter and where the Fonda Fish Farm is located.

The Piran mullet

The mullet is a common species of fish spread worldwide, drawing no special attention from either scientists or environmentalists. For Slovene maritime fishery, the golden grey mullet (Liza Aurata) from the Mugilidae family (Mavrič, Bojnec, Ramšak 2021: 125) is the most important one from a symbolic as well as (local) economic point of view (Marčeta 2016: 105). The migration of the Piran mullet is seasonal. In summer, it retreats to deeper sea, and in winter it merges into large, compact shoals that tend to linger in the bay near the mouths of inland waters (Marčeta 2016). Every winter from January to March, golden grey mullets – in smaller quantities also other species of mullet, appear in large shoals in the Bay of Piran, where they are annually caught by fishers from Piran.

Mullets feed mostly on small benthic organisms and detritus (Jardas 1996). In popular discourse they have a reputation for being “dirty” fish due to their eating habits. However, the fishers we interviewed explained that mullets fast during the winter period and their meat becomes clean.

Despite their humble sustenance, they have acquired resonant symbolic significance in the region. Black-and-white photos of “traditional” ways of catching mullet from the turn of the 20th century constitute a ubiquitous part of the Piranꞌs imaginary. We find them in the museum and the municipality halls of Piran. They crop up variously in Slovene newspapers, most often in relation to winter catch, or quarrels between fishers, and lately, also in relation to the maritime border between Slovenia and Croatia. In the local museum of Piran, references to mullet fishing adorn the main staircase. In 2013, the mullet’s image was selected for the Slovene animal postage stamp. Interestingly, the stamp came with the frame, or rather, with the background story.

Fig. 2: Mullet stamp (Bulletin 2013).

The frame around the drawing of the mullet shows a traditional technique of mullet fishing, used mainly by Italian (Venetian dialect)-speaking fishers who lived in Piran before the World War II[2]. As one sticks the stamp on the envelope, one cannot but wonder how the beautiful frame will remain stuck to the letter envelope, or one faces the inevitability of throwing the frame away. There is a clear reason for such concerns, as without the frame, the mullet becomes just a species of fish, while with the frame, it becomes an identity marker.

The stamp, as well as the photos of mullet fishing, are also an important signifier of the past communal life. In comparison to other fishing techniques, mullet fishing is a labour-intensive collective work that encompasses organising, catching and sorting the fish, distributing them and keeping a night watch to guard against poaching. Even though night guards do not perform labour-intensive work, they have a significant bonding role among the fishers. Generally, fishers complained bitterly about the decline of fishing and the rise of the mariculture sector, observing that mariculture is not in the least environmentally friendly, on top of the fact that employment possibilities in the sector are limited. Piran fishers were also of the opinion that they, as fishers of Piran, should have privileged access to mullet fishing, to the exclusion of fishers from other Slovene coastal municipalities. This view is in stark contrast to the official line of state representatives in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, who consider mullet fishing more a national heritage than a local tradition.

The mullet, as a national heritage, became an important player in the negotiations on the Slovene-Croatian maritime border running across the Bay of Piran. With their perpetual circulation and appearance in the bay, mullets in a way link the present-day inhabitants of Piran (and Slovenia in general) with the early history of the area, forming an argument for the disputed maritime border in favour of Slovenia. Namely, after Slovenia and Croatia declared independence in 1991, the maritime border between Croatia and Slovenia remained undefined and is still a matter of an international dispute in 2023. Different solutions have been proposed since by the two states, and in one such proposal, mullet fishing played a key role as a traditional town privilege of Piran.[3]

Although mullets move between and across corridors and borderlines in the North Adriatic Sea, swimming between deeper sea and inland waters, they do not “travel” much after being caught. The mullet commodity chain on land is in fact quite short. After the mullets are caught in large quantities, usually in winter, fishers sell them at the pier, either directly to locals, to local fish markets, or further afield to supermarkets in Slovenia, especially Spar and Leclerc, and to the central fish market in Ljubljana. They are considered a relatively cheap fish, a fish eaten mostly by Slovenians, mainly coastal inhabitants or others who support local providers, but also by those who appreciate mullets as part of the coastal tradition or by those who think mullets are reasonably priced. Fishers told us that mullets, unlike other fish that they sell mainly at the Trieste fish market in Italy, don’t sell in Italy, because Italians do not particularly care for their meat. On the Slovenian side, however, the cooking recipes with mullets remain an integral part of everyday cuisine in Piran, especially in the winter period.

The farmed Piran sea bass

Unlike the Piran mullet, the local signifier “Piran” was not attributed to the sea bass by the locals themselves, but rather by Slovenia’s Intellectual Property Office in 2012. The farmed sea bass[4] (Dicentrarchus Labrax, Atlantic strain) was introduced to the Bay of Piran in 2003 by the local Fonda family who owns the Fonda Fish Farm. By registering the trademark name “Fonda Piran Sea Bass” by adding their family name, the fish not only became symbolically adopted into the Bay of Piran but also lost its anonymity.[5] Also, Piran Sea Bass Fonda was the first local territorial branding of a farmed sea fish in the Adriatic Sea, thus creating a sea-based »merroir«, a derivative of land-based »terroir« (Kumer et al. 2019). All that contributed to the commodification of the farmed sea bass and its inscription in the neoliberal property regime.

The employees at the Fonda Fish Farm stress the importance of “informed consumers”, who would appreciate a higher quality of fish and would thus be prepared to pay a higher price. As part of the tour at the fish farm, one could observe professionally-designed, glossy posters depicting modern fish mesh cages, shoals of sea basses, high quality fish food, their employees, tourist tours in the Fonda Fish Farms but also old family photos of the owners depicting a long maritime tradition of the local Fonda family. The intended message of the tour was that the Piran Sea Bass from the Fonda Fish Farm is not just a fish – it is a trademark.

Unlike the wild mullet or wild sea bass which have a dynamic, mobile life, moving between the open sea and the lagoons, the farmed sea bass is mobile on land but sedentary in the sea. Each growth stage of the farmed sea bass is carefully controlled and monitored. This process, which Lien (2015) calls domestication, starts with the selection of the best juvenile fish. The Fonda company’s representatives emphasised the importance of selecting healthy juvenile fish to ensure the best possible growth, resistance to disease and other factors closely related to the success rate. Where exactly the juveniles are bought is a “business secret”, but the employees revealed to us that they buy sea bass’ Atlantic strain juveniles from the Italian and French hatcheries as that particular strain is better adapted to a cooler climate. There were several occasions when they took a hybrid approach, so that the fish eggs were fertilised in a French breeding station and were subsequently transferred to a breeding station in southern Italy where they were grown to the proper size. Only the best juvenile sea bass are lucky enough to embark on a road trip and are then transported by truck to the Bay of Piran. Transporting juvenile fish – 7 months old, 5 cm long and weighing between 4 to 6 grammes, is a very delicate endeavour leaving no room for mistakes. On the last leg of their journey, a Fonda boat transports them to their final destination – the fish breeding nets of the Fonda Fish Farm in the south of the Bay of Piran. As we can begin to appreciate, a tremendous amount of work and care is invested in the fish, and the employees of the Fonda Fish Farm were eager to explain to us that they use the highest quality fish feed – »certified organic and made according to a Danish formula« – and that the fish are hand-fed. It takes years for them to reach sizes appropriate for the end consumer. Due to the colder temperatures of the North Adriatic, the average breeding time takes longer thus extending care and increasing costs for the Fonda family. During this time, they become sedentary inhabitants of the Bay of Piran, enclosed and trapped in floating cages, occasionally catching the sight of wild mullets that feast on sea bass excrement and feed leftovers.[6]

Initially, 96% of the Fonda Piran Sea Bass was sold abroad and only 4% in Slovenia. Gradually, the percentage sold in Slovenia increased significantly. Their meat is much appreciated by high-end restaurants, but also by individual consumers with higher purchasing power, both in Slovenia and across the wider region, where the Piran sea bass has become a sought-after food item (Rogelja, Janko Spreizer 2017), albeit not an inexpensive one. The care during the sea bass’ lives is extended into their afterlife – packed in aesthetic boxes with family photos reflecting the pedigree of the local family, they relay perfectly to the contemporary consumerism priorities and sustainability debates like the kilometre zero initiative[7] that somewhat glosses over the fact that the farmed sea bass has done its share of traveling during its lifetime.

In spite of the fact that the technology used by the Fonda Fish Farm is presented as state-of-the-art, knowledge-based and future-oriented, significant efforts are made to localise and traditionalise the fish breeding endeavour. This effort is communicated through the slick and elegant but also highly nostalgic branding that references the family and past communal life in the Bay of Piran. The family’s local “roots going back several hundred years” are depicted by sepia-colored portraits of unnamed faces invoking local and family tradition a life on the sea. It seems that the more contemporary photo material aims to emulate this approach; the portrait of the three main protagonists of the Fonda family, the father, the daughter and the son with their faces weathered by the sun and wind holding the sea bass in their hands. Although they are all trained biologists, they patently shun more professional outfits, opting instead for working clothes, and being outdoors, with depictions of net-mending activities perhaps referring to the highly praised outdoor freedom attributed to the life of fishers.[8]

Fig. 3: Farmed sea bass stamp (Bulletin 2020).

This branding exercise notwithstanding, the Piran sea bass, on the other hand, has yet to find its way to heritage imaginaries of what “local” and “traditional” means in the Bay of Piran. The farmed sea bass has so far not been invited into museum halls, neither has it entered the archives, but it has managed to become enshrined on postal stamps. Printed in 2020 as part of the “Gastronomy of the Mediterranean” series, the Fonda sea bass is now a central part of the compilation called “Traditional Gastronomy of the Mediterranean” which also includes extra virgin olive oil, Istrian soup, and two local wines, Refošk and Malvazija (Bogataj 2020). But in contrast to the depicted wild and living “mullet-the-being” with its Latin signifier, the sea bass on the stamp has found its way on the plate as a branded meal to be consumed.

Anthropological digesting

With these short ethnographies of the mullet and the farmed sea bass, we wanted to highlight the multifaceted embeddedness of the life and afterlife of both fish in the human social world of the northeastern Adriatic coast. Both fishes constitute an indelible part of the larger economic, identity, social, cultural, as well as political and environmental climate in which they exist and towards which they contribute. In all of these aspects, the past continues to affect the ways in which both the present and the future are lived and envisioned. At the same time, there are different appropriations of the past (Rogelja, Janko Spreizer, Bofulin 2020), but for the purpose of this paper, we have focused on heritage-making, always a selective process and a subject of constant negotiation and change. We understand heritage as a particular type of imaginary or representational assemblage (Salazar 2012) that build on various interpretations of the past, reworked through the present-day optics. These imaginaries consist not only of humans, but include diverse arrangements of locally present non-humans, materials, things, technologies, etc. The Piran mullet and Piran farmed sea bass’ interaction with the human world are examples of such assemblages, bringing to the fore the particular entanglements of the past, present and future of the Bay of Piran.

At a glance, it may seem that each of the featured fish has a different relationship to time – mullets swim more comfortably in the past, while farmed sea bass tend to swim towards the future – but in fact they both contribute to the possible future of the Bay of Piran and they both, each in its own way, refer to the past. Although both are involved in the heritage-making, they both contribute to the same local-global history, sharing the same bay but also the same time and space of the contemporary Mediterranean, each finding its own place in the ever-changing process of heritage. Following our two fishes, we highlighted how internally incoherent heritage discourse is, and it may be that this very hindrance is what enables heritage the flexibility to adapt to various situations and for different purposes. It is this incoherence or dissonance, as referred to by Laurajane Smith (2006: 82), that both regulates and legitimates as well as negotiates, contests and challenges the existing identities, memories, values and meanings. Through such processes, the sea bass and the mullet merge into a single heritage creature – “mulletseabass”, contributing past and future, tails and heads, to the story of the Bay of Piran.


The authors acknowledge receipt of funding from the Ministry of Education, Science, and Sport of the Republic of Slovenia and the Slovenian Research and Innovation Agency core funding Heritage on the Margins: New Perspectives on Heritage and Identity within and beyond the National (P5-0408) and applied project Episcope of Borderscape (L7-4629). The authors would like to thank Saša Požek for proofreading the English version. 

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  1. The Bay of Piran and its coastal environs – the site of our story – are replete with borders and routes of all kinds and have long been defined by their position as a frontier space along the northeastern Adriatic coast and fought over by competing empires and states: the Habsburg Empire, the Venetian Republic, and the Ottoman Empire. Ethnic, linguistic and national divisions between people living along the coast and in the hinterland became increasingly evident in the 19th century, and especially after 1945, when a border between the communist East and the capitalist West was drawn. Here, various forms of the past reproduced as heritage, history, memory or oblivion are thus very much alive and competing traditions continue to resonate in contemporary cultural representations (Ballinger 2003, 2004, 2006, 2013; Baskar 2002; Cocco 2006, 2010a, 2010b, 2013; Janko Spreizer 2019, Rogelja, Janko Spreizer 2017).[
  2. The mass emigration of the Italian-speaking population is perhaps one of the most salient events triggered by the border settlement after the World War II. According to the 1947 Peace Treaty and 1954 London Memorandum, part of the territory that came to belong to Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was also the Bay of Piran and its hinterland (Ballinger 2012: 373). This resulted in the final mass emigration of the Italian-speaking population. From 1943 to 1954, according to Pamela Ballinger (ibid.: 52), between 200,000 and 350,000 Italian-speaking inhabitants left their homes and moved to the northern side of the so-called Morgan’s or Blue Line. In Piran, the percentage of the Italian (Venetian dialect)-speaking population dropped from 90% to 15% (Pletikosić 1995: 21). Many of those who had left, were fishers, leaving local fishing communities impoverished in terms of people and fishing skills.[
  3. According to the historical records on the tradition of mullet fishing and the Piran municipality’s fishing rights in the area that date back to the 6th century, Slovenia laid claim to draw the border between Croatia and Slovenia in favour of Slovenia and the Piran municipality (Mihelič 1987: 9–11; Mihelič 1998: 7–18), overriding the principle of equidistance and the division along the medium line under Article 15 of the UNCLOS. This delimitation was suggested in the 2001 Drnovšek–Račan Agreement between Croatia and Slovenia which proposed, that the Slovene territorial sea should cover 70% of the Bay of Piran. The agreement was never implemented (Rogelja, Janko Spreizer 2017). Within this failed agreement, the mullet, forming arguments around historic circumstances, became nothing less than international geopolitical players.[
  4. Farmed sea bass is a leading species in European marine aquaculture (Vandeputte et al. 2001), a fast-growing industry. Although maricultural production in Slovenia is still comparatively low, amounting to 913 tonnes in 2019 (Mavrič, Bojnec, Ramšak 2021: 48), it is a developing industry, in contrast to Slovene maritime fishing production, which is in decline (ibid.).[
  5. See[
  6. Marine scientists researching the movements of golden grey mullets (Liza Aurata) in connection to coastal fish farms in the western Mediterranean Sea report that golden grey mullets are frequently found around sea bream and sea bass farms (Dempster et al. 2002, Fernandez-Jover et al. 2008), where they play an important ecological role, consuming considerable amounts of waste feed from the farms and thus also diminishing the environmental impact of the fish farming activity (Katz et al. 2002, Lupatsch et al. 2003, Fernandez-Jover et al. 2008, Arechavala-Lopez et al. 2010).[
  7. A product can be called a zero-km product when it has travelled as few kilometres as possible from the producer to the consumer. The idea behind the initiative is a critique of global food, whose origin is often inadequately certified and the benefits of saving money on transporting the product. []
  8. Advertising material on the Fonda Piran Sea Bass. (accessed 24. 11. 2022).[