Wed, Jul 14, 2004 - Page 16 News List

With Taiwan in the distance, a lifelong chase for marlin

Off Japan's westernmost island, Yonaguni, an old man has spent a lifetimegoing after one of the ocean's largest predatorial fishes

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , Yonaguni Island, Japan

Hiroshi Fukumine, 74, a fisherman, searches for marlins off the shore of Yonaguni Island, Japan. Fukumine is known for his boldness in going out to stormy seas when others dare not to.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

The bonito with its large black back and silvery sides flopped aboard the fishing boat, scattering blood on the white deck. After reeling in a couple more, Hiroshi Fukumine, 74, pressed the throttle, and his boat began gaining speed, land receding into the distance.

Over the next hour, as warm waves crashed aboard and left big grains of salt on the skin, the boat roared into the East China Sea, with Fukumine's gaze fixed at a destination known only to himself. For on this morning, as on every other morning, the bonito were just bait for marlin.

Maybe today, as he had one day last year, he would catch a 500kg marlin, the biggest in a lifetime spent prowling the sea. His son, Hiroaki, 51, recently decided to succeed him, and the father spoke of retiring soon. His 74-year-old knees wobbled and his back ached. Age had changed his view of the sea.

"Before, I was never afraid," he said later that day. "But as I've gotten older, I find myself fearing the waves. The sea can take your life."

Here on Japan's westernmost island, where Taiwan is visible on a clear day, four fishermen in their 70s continue to search the seas for the marlin that ends up on dinner tables across the nation. Born just as the commercial fishing of marlin began here in the 1930s, the old men, like the one in Hemingway's story, used to fish alone in skiffs.

Now the boats are bigger and have engines, but the fishing remains the same. The fishermen drag a bonito, attached to a hook and line, across the waters until a marlin bites, and then fight to reel in a fish that can weigh several times more than they do and that can swim at more than 70kph.

It is a contest the fishermen have often lost, sometimes fatally, before mechanized reels became popular here, about two decades ago.

Back then, once a marlin struck, the line would whip around as the fisherman scrambled to grasp it. Sometimes it would become entangled around his fingers or legs, and the marlin would yank him into the sea. In the most famous case, an 81-year-old named Shigeru Itokazu was killed in 1990 after a line became coiled around his thumb and a marlin pulled him into the sea, shortly after he had appeared as the subject of a documentary, The Old Man and the East China Sea.

A lean man, standing 165cm, Fukumine once had his middle-finger entangled in a line and ripped away by a marlin. A doctor here reattached the finger, but upside-down. He had it properly reattached in Ishigaki, a bigger island in Okinawa, and had missing flesh replaced from his backside.

After World War II, this island served as a focal point for a black-market trade between Japan and Taiwan, China and Hong Kong. Fukumine worked on boats that smuggled goods, like women's clothing, until the US occupying forces cracked down on the black-market trade in 1950. Then over the next two decades, he joined eight-man fishing boats that hauled in several marlin a day, before setting out aboard his own skiff.

Of the old men here, Fukumine is known for his boldness, in going out to stormy seas when others dare not to.

One day two decades ago, when waves were so high that no one else went out to sea, Fukumine did. Trying to reel in a fish, he fell overboard, as his boat moved on toward the island of Iriomote. He drifted for two hours and washed up against some rocks, where a search party found him despite mistaking him at first for a turtle.

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