Women Who MAKE TRAVEL MATTER® Dr. Irena Fonda – Fostering Sustainable Sea bass in the Adriatic

by | 22 Jun 2021

In March of this year, we launched our new Wander Women itinerary to Venice & the Croatian Coast, a women-only tour that combines beautiful coastal sightseeing with immersive MAKE TRAVEL MATTER® Experiences. On this 13-day adventure, our guests will meet female entrepreneurs and business leaders who are making an impact on the environment and their own communities. This guided tour has been carefully developed by an all-female team, choosing enriching encounters along the way that celebrate female empowerment and connect our guests more deeply with the destination.  

Dr Irene Fonda

We spoke with Dr. Irena Fonda, owner and manager of the Fonda Fish Garden, a sustainable water garden where the breeding of Piran Sea Bass take place in a supervised condition and wild fish and other marine organisms can swim in a wide sanctuary. The Fonda Fish Garden is featured on Day 3 of the Venice & the Croatian Coast guided tour. Dr. Irena is an award-wining marine biologist who grew up in Piran, Slovenia and now runs the business started by her father, Ugo. 

Passionate for Sea Life 

The Fonda Fish Garden was a passion project that began with Dr. Irena’s father and brother. They ran a diving business for underwater maintenance, construction, filming and sampling to help underwater archaeologists and tourists alike while visiting Piran in the North Adriatic. Fonda explains that her father was a fervent fisherman, who was obsessed with the sea. He enjoyed seeing all the different species and thoroughly enjoyed fishing as a sport. However, he began to notice that the fish numbers were dwindling with certain species, including seabass, becoming very scarce. Concerned for the environment, he dreamed up an underwater park to protect the fish. Unfortunately, due to bureaucracy and a lack of understanding from local authorities it would prove very difficult to bring about. 

Dr. Irena had been carrying out award-winning research in a laboratory for a pharmaceutical company, but she shared her family’s zeal for the sea and its creatures. When her father mentioned starting a fish farm, she wasn’t at first convinced how a fish farm aligned with his idea of an underwater park, but knew his motives were to protect their part of the ocean. She saw it as a side project to get involved in, but soon she knew it would take over her life. She mentions that she sat on the fence for a while before diving in. It was important to learn from the mistakes of other fish farms; that they must do things differently. She notes that her father’s dreams were romantic, but they had to learn what was feasible in order to make it sustainable. 

Creating a Market 

Although sustainability has become more important in the food industry over the past few years, Dr. Irena explains that it was slow to catch on for the fishing industry. “It wasn’t just culturing the fish; we had to create a market for sustainable seabass and seabream.” 

That doesn’t happen overnight. The team at Fonda Fish Garden had to focus on educating the market. If we strip our oceans of fish so quickly, we damage the precious ecosystems and eventually the species die out. Allowing the fish the time to grow is vital for the survival of the species, but it also boosts the quality of the fish. Dr. Irena knew that if she could prove the quality of the fish and convince local restaurants it was worth waiting for, it would protect the species for longer and those ecosystems that thrive around it.   

Fonda Fish Farm panorama

The baby fish, or fingerlings as she calls them, need to be carefully selected and cared for. Their location in the north of the Adriatic, with cool waters, is ideal to nurture high quality fish, but it takes time. The babies are nurtured for six to eight months and by then they only reach around six centimeters in length. The fish are fed daily by hand, a process that the women travel groups on the Venice & the Croatian Coast tour get to witness on their visit. It’s an exciting experience for the visitors and fish alike; a wave is created when the fish see the boat because they know that it’s feeding time. 

At other fish farms, the focus is on fattening the fish up and quickly selling them on, whereas the team at the Fonda Fish Garden have set aside the economics in order to ensure a more natural process. The amount of care, time, space and quality of food that the fish are given wouldn’t make sense for a large fish farm, but Dr. Irena knows that this is the key to its quality and sustainability. It also aligns with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 14, to conserve and protect our oceans and marine life. 

An Immersive Visit 

Female travelers on the Venice & the Croatian Coast tour are welcomed by Dr. Irena for a morning on the Fonda Fish Garden. Here, they learn more about how the farm operates before heading out on the water to see the giant mesh nets that protect the fish, while allowing them to swim freely. The baby fish are very trusting, so they approach any boat seeking food. The divers, who clean the nets manually every day, can be seen hard at work, ensuring that the nets are kept free from algae or other weeds that might reduce the water flow harm the fish. No chemicals are used here, ensuring it is eco-friendly to all the creatures that inhabit its depths, which has led to a thriving reef system forming naturally in the bay. 


Back on the dock, there is the opportunity to sample the fine seabass they offer, alongside other local produce all sourced in the region of Istria. Dr. Irena shares tips on preparing the fish for cooking and how easy it is with seabass of the highest quality. She is passionate about sharing their story, explaining how every visit directly affects them as it pays for the fish food and upkeep of the farm. Every team member is connected with the sea, many have been with the Fonda family since the beginning.  

Dr. Irena thrives on the positive feedback from every guest who has visited, knowing that she has helped some more people understand the need for sustainable fish and how it impacts our environment. At the same time, every guest who has visited is directly supporting this unique fish farm. 

Gaining Recognition 

Fonda Fish Garden has won several awards, including one for sustainable tourism from the Slovenian Tourist Board, labeling the fish farm as an official Slovenia Unique Experience. The Slovenia Unique Experience label ensures that the business or tourism experience is local, authentic, unique, experiential, boutique, sustainably green, and of premium quality. This label has only been awarded to nine businesses in Slovenia. 

In fact, the seabass from here is the only farmed fish in the world that appears on menus with its brand name, Fonda Seabass. The demand for the best seabass in the world is such that five-star hotels and restaurants in Austria, Italy and Croatia order far in advance. They understand that the wait is worth it for the finest seabass on offer and guarantees the survival of this species. 

After the excursion to the Fonda Fish Garden, guests on the Venice & the Croatian Coast tour indulge in a Sea-to-Table lunch in Old Town Piran, where the Fonda seabass is served.  

Helping to Make Travel a Force for Good 

The aim of Insight Vacations’ Wander Women trips is to provide enriching travel experiences for women traveling together. We have a firm commitment to add MAKE TRAVEL MATTER® Experiences to each tour that we create, highlighting women like Dr. Irena Fonda, who are pioneers in their community and further supporting their sustainable initiatives through our visit.  

On the Venice & the Croatian Coast tour, we have eight MAKE TRAVEL MATTER® Experiences, carefully chosen to align with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. As well as visiting the Fonda Fish Farm, females on the tour will meet the industrious women of Tara Community Center who produce and sell handicrafts, as well as pass on local traditions, advancing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 10: Reduced Inequalities and Sustainable Development Goal 11: Sustainable Cities & Communities. They’ll also hear the inspiring story of cooperative brewery founders, Maja Šepetavec and Ana Teskera, who have built a thriving social enterprise in beautiful Zadar. 

As a founding member of the TreadRight Foundation, Insight Vacations believe travel can and must be a force for good. From choosing to stay at resorts where sustainability is the focus to supporting local artists preserving cultural traditions, we aim to MAKE TRAVEL MATTER® while delivering insightful and memorable vacation experiences. We invite our guests to take the pledge and help protect people, the planet and wildlife. 

Join Insight Vacations Wander Women to enjoy this incredible tour, designed by women for women and meet Dr. Irena Fonda for an inspiring visit to her incredible boutique fish farm. 

We are curious about the world, and we know you are too. And it’s that curiosity and sense of adventure we aim to spark through our Insightful blog. Each month we bring you stories, interviews, awe-inspiring photography and videos from around the world – always threaded through with our expert insights and destination knowledge.