Exploring the art of fire fishing in Taiwan

In Jinshan, Taiwan, the number of boats using the traditional fire fishing method has decreased from 300 to three. The remaining fishermen have a seasonal window from May to July when they can catch sardines using fire, a centuries-old practice.

For hundreds of years, fishermen in Taiwan have used a fiery stick held over the edge of a boat to catch sardines. The fish are so drawn to the light that they jump out of the water and into the fishermen’s nets.

Fire fishing is both simple and enthralling. During the night, fishing boats sail out to sea, lighting a bamboo stick covered in sulfuric soil at one end to create a bright flame. The sulfur dissolves in the water and the resulting gas flashes with fire. Sardines are drawn to the light spectacle and jump out of the water by the hundreds at a time, ending up in the fishermen’s nets. Sulfuric fire fishing was developed during the Japanese occupation and is now only practiced in the Jinshan sulfur harbor.

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As the sun sets, a small group of Taiwanese fishermen sets sails off the northeast coast, lighting a fire on the end of a bamboo stick with chemicals and waiting for the fish.

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According to the fishermen’s association in Jinshan district, north of Taipei, there used to be 300 boats using the traditional fire fishing method, but now there are only three.

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The fire is waved over the side of the fishing boat.
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Like moths, hundreds of sardines leap out of the water towards the light and are caught in large nets.

 

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The remaining 30 or so fishermen have a three-month seasonal window from May to July to catch sardines using fire.
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On a good night, the fishermen can spend up to six hours at sea catching 3-4 tonnes of sardines, which can earn them more than $4,500 (£3,380).

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‘My daily earnings are unstable, but I need to sail for a living,’ said Jian Kun, a 60-year-old boat owner.

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The fire lighting method has been updated to include the use of calcium carbide.
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The boats are old, making it physically difficult for the fishermen, who are on average 60 years old.

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To encourage them to continue the practice, the government provides a subsidy.

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Fire fishing is both simple and enthralling. During the night, fishing boats sail out to sea, lighting a bamboo stick covered in sulfuric soil at one end to create a bright flame. The sulfur dissolves in the water and the resulting gas flashes with fire. Sardines are drawn to the light spectacle and jump out of the water by the hundreds at a time, ending up in the fishermen’s nets. Sulfuric fire fishing was developed during the Japanese occupation and is now only practiced in the Jinshan sulfur harbor.

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According to the local fishermen’s association in Jinshan District, north of Taipei, there were once over 300 boats practicing fire fishing in Taiwan, but that number has now shrunk to just three. A six-hour night fishing session can yield three to four tons of sardines per boat, and the Taiwanese government even subsidizes the practice. A team of fishermen can earn up to $4,500 on a good night, so why is this fascinating tradition dying?

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Unfortunately, the sardine season only lasts three months, from May to July, and despite government efforts to keep the tradition alive and promote it as a tourist attraction, young people aren’t impressed. The average age of the remaining fire fishermen is around 60 years old, and with no new blood on the horizon, the future of this fascinating tradition does not look promising.
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According to Zheng Zhi-ming, a religious studies professor at Fu Jen Catholic University, using sulfuric fire to catch fish in Taiwan’s northeast region was common two or three decades ago, but the rapid improvement of fishing equipment, combined with the exodus of youths from fishing villages, has led to the decline of a tradition that was once considered one of the eight must-see attractions.

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

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

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

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

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The Jinshan Sulphuric Fire Fishing Festival was established in 2013 to help promote the tradition, and photography tours have been organized to generate interest and funds.

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

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The annual Jinshan sulphuric fire fishing festival was established in 2013 to promote the practice, and photography tours have been organized to generate interest and raise funds.

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