Tue, Jul 05, 2016 - Page 5 News List

Dwindling group of Jinshan fishermen keep flame alive

By Tyrone Siu  /  Reuters, TAIPEI

Fishermen use a fire to attract sardines off the coast of New Taipei City on June 19.

Photo: Tyrone Siu, Reuters

Under the darkness of the night sky, a small group of fishermen set sail off the northeast coast, light a fire on the end of a bamboo stick using chemicals and wait for the fish to come.

Like a magnet, hundreds of sardines leap out of the water toward the bright light waved by one fisherman and his colleagues angle their nets and haul in the catch.

There used to be 300 boats using the traditional fire fishing method each night, but now there are only three, according to a fishermen’s association in New Taipei City’s Jinshan District (金山).

The 30 or so remaining fishermen have a three-month seasonal window from May to July where they can catch sardines using fire, a practice that dates back hundreds of years, the association says.

The fishermen spend up to six hours a night at sea to catch between 2.7 and 3.6 tonnes of sardines, which can earn them, on a really good night, more than US$4,500. Only bad weather forces them to shore early.

“My daily earnings are unstable, but for a living I need to sail,” said Jian Kun, a 60-year-old boat owner, of the fire fishermen’s plight.

The government provides a subsidy to the fishermen to encourage them to continue fire fishing and in 2014, it also applied to the New Taipei City Department of Cultural Affairs for registration for the technique as a cultural asset.

The annual Jinshan Sulphuric Fire Fishing festival was started in 2013 to help promote the tradition, while photography tours have been set up to generate interest and boost finances.

The method of lighting the fire has been updated to include the use of calcium carbide, but the boats are old and the average age of the fishermen is about 60.

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