How Taiwan’s last “lion fishing” boat keeps tradition alive

Text by Gladys Tsai, CNN; Video from John Mees, CNN

When night falls, a group of fishermen set sail off the coast of northern Taiwan to catch sardines using a traditional method: fire.

As soon as they are at sea, a fisherman lights a fire on a stick with acetylene gas – created by adding water to calcium carbide, which the locals call sulfur stones.

A chaotic scene follows: Hundreds of glittering pennies jump out of the sea like falling stars while other fishermen collect them in nets.

As the fishing begins, the pungent smell of the gas is in the air.

Local fishermen in northern Taiwan have been using fire to catch puffed sardines for centuries. According to the New Taipei City Ministry of Culture, the earliest documentation of the calcium carbide technique dates back to about a century ago when the island was ruled by the Japanese.

The practice is believed to originate from the Basay, an indigenous group who lived in the area for centuries.

Six decades ago, around 100 fishing boats put out to sea between May and August and illuminated the sea with soft yellow flames. But since the flaky sardines have depreciated, there is only one firefishing boat left in Taiwan today.

A practice that goes back centuries

Hsu Cheng-cheng, a Taiwanese tour operator, aims to keep the tradition alive.

Since 2012, Hsu has been organizing regular guided tours in Jinshan, a rural coastal town in northern Taiwan, where tourists can experience the tradition up close.

He explains that the practice of fire fishing was widespread in the olden days because it was effective in catching flaky sardines, which were popular in Taiwan.

“People used to catch flaky sardines for food. The fish is cute and has many tiny bones, so it’s high in calcium, ”he told CNN. “The fish is usually fried or braised in soy sauce with grated ginger.”

Sardines were usually caught during the summer season as the fish followed the current of water through the Pacific Ocean to the coasts of northern Taiwan.

As soon as the boat reached the fishing spot, the fisherman in charge of lighting the fire – known as the “fire chief” – instructed his team to add the right amount of water at the right time.

Sardines, attracted by the light, jumped out of the water and into fishing nets.

However, the tradition slowly faded as the number of puffed sardines in the area rapidly declined. The fish also gradually became less popular and cheaper, causing many fishermen to pull out and leave the industry.

Save the tradition

Hsu, 60, said he was inspired to save tradition because it was an important part of Taiwan’s local heritage.

“I had a strong feeling that it was going to die out soon,” he says.

Hsu, who has also led eco-tours, says he appreciates the importance of cultural heritage due to its interweaving with local ecology.

Since it is no longer profitable to catch flaked sardines, Hsu’s tours have brought income to the fishermen, which enables them to carry on the tradition and spread it to the rest of the world.

In 2015, the lion fishing tradition was classified as a “cultural asset” by the local government in order to raise awareness of the importance of preserving the practice.

A glimmer of hope

While many fishermen have retired due to the demanding work and low income, Chien Shi-kai, 28, decided to enter the profession to continue the family business.

Chien learned how to catch sardines on fire shortly after completing his military service.

“My father owns one of the fire engines, so it was natural for me to get into the business,” he says.

“Two years ago the ‘fire chief’ had to retire for health reasons. My father and uncles on the boat wanted to pass the tradition on to the next generation and they encouraged me to take it on. That’s why I became the fire chief in such a short time. “

Today, Chien is responsible for lighting the flame on the last fire fishing boat in Taiwan.

During the summer fishing season, he usually works all night to catch the catch. “It’s a night job with hard work. When things get hectic, we have to work from 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m., ”says Chien.

But the job is worth it, he adds, because he enjoys the sense of achievement when he hits the right spot and comes back with a big catch.

Various plans have been discussed between the community and authorities to keep the lion fishing tradition alive, but Chien says nothing is more urgent than bringing the fish back.

“Whether you’re promoting it as a tourist attraction or looking to increase the profitability of the business, it’s all about the fish,” he explains. “Without fish, it won’t be exciting for tourists, nor can income be increased.”

In the meantime, Chien and Hsu have teamed up.

Hsu ran 4.5-hour tours during the summer months to showcase lion fishing to tourists and photo enthusiasts. From Bisha Harbor in Keelung, a neighboring city to New Taipei, tourists can board a separate ship that sails near Chien’s fishing boat while it makes the catch.

The practice is fully geared towards tourists: the fire-fishing boat moves slower than usual so that the boat filled with tourists can catch up; the fishermen also stay in one place longer than usual so people can capture the beauty of the scene with their cameras.

After the pennies have been caught in front of the tourists, most of the fish are then released back into the sea. Hsu says this will hopefully allow the fish population to grow in the future.

He hopes that the current business model can give the old tradition a chance of survival.

“When the fish are back and such a practice can bring sufficient economic benefits, new fishermen could join and the tradition could be revived,” says Hsu.

The CNN Wire
™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia company. All rights reserved.

Images by John Mees on CNN.

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