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Taiwan Fishing Heritage: Fish and Fire Dance in the Sea

fire chief

The whole fishing team works together to catch the fish. Photo by Ming-Chih Chang.

Pōng-hué-á (蹦火仔, pōng is for the sound of fire) or “jolting fire” (sometimes also translated as “sulfuric fire”) is a fishing technique once widely used by the aboriginal people in Taiwan. In the night, indigenous fishermen used to light a fire with bamboo or wood in their boats to attract the swimming fish nearer to the vessels.

Later this aboriginal fishing technique was reinvented, and fishermen began using kerosene to light the fire. During Japanese rule over Taiwan, fisherman switched to using acetylene gas for stoking the flames. The gas was generated from the chemical effect of putting the so-called “sulfuric stone” (calcium carbide) into water.

The acetylene gas technique has been preserved to this day in the Jinshan Harbor on the northern coast of Taiwan. The harbor was used to transport sulfur harvested in the nearby mountains since the period of Spanish Rule (between 1626-1642).

Jolting fire fishing has been very popular in the Jinshan Harbor since the Qing Dynasty and a must-see attraction during the summer time when massive shoals of anchovies and sardines swim off the northern coast of Taiwan. Yet the traditional fishing technique is waning, with only four fishing vessels still using this method.

Last month, on August 31, the fishing technique using acetylene gas was registered as a cultural heritage activity under the Department of Cultural Affairs of the New Taipei City Government.

Journalist Huei-Jen Lin from News Market, an independent news site, explained why this technique is eco-friendly:

目前大多數的漁船使用強光照明,容易讓魚眼睛爆出死亡,招致許多生態上的批評,蹦火則因作業範圍小、時間短,被視為友善環境的漁法

Nowadays most fishing boats use extremely bright lighting, which makes the fish eyeballs explode. This kind of technique is criticized as not eco-friendly. On the other hand, the fishing technique such as jolting fire is only applied in a small area for a short time, so it is considered to be eco-friendly.

The Jinshan Culture and History Studio has studied the jolting fire technique for years, and helps organize tours allowing tourists to experience the fishing technique and understand its advantages:

本漁法僅需一艘船便可單獨作業[…]機動性頗高。

The fishermen only need one boat to apply this technique. […] It is very flexible.

How exactly do fishermen apply the technique to catch the fish? Journalist Huei-Jen Lin from News Market took some photos of the action and described the procedure in details in her report.

蹦火船通常在6點前就會出港,找到魚群後就定位,等待夜晚到來。

The jolting fire boats usually leave the harbor at 6pm. After they localize the fish, they come back and wait until it turns dark.

fire chief

The fire chief holds the fire to attract the fish. Photo from Ray J. Lee.

The fire chief directs the fishing team, which usually includes the following members (see photo at the top of the post):

俗稱「海腳」的漁工,負責下網、收網,組成五人抄網團隊,從船尾到船頭的人員任務分別是牽網仔、推桸竿、拿桸竿(抄網手)、踩桸竿、拉桸竿[…]船上還有一名俗稱「磺火鉗仔」的裝填人員,負責替換磺石、控制水量,掌握乙炔的釋出量[…]另一個不可或缺的關鍵人物是駕駛,有經驗的駕駛可以觀潮汐、看水流,協助火長找魚,在魚群靠近時迅速剎車或轉彎,讓抄網手找到最適合的角度下網。

Fishermen called “ocean poles” need to assemble a five-member netting team to set the net and collect it. The job of these fishermen, standing from the head to the tail of the boat, is to drag the net, pull the poles, control the poles (i.e., the netting guy), step the poles, and drag the poles. […] There is a staff on the boat called carbide fitter, who is responsible to replace sulfur rock [calcium carbide] and control the volume of water to generating acetylene gas. […] Another important person is the boat driver. An experienced boat driver would observe the tide and oceanic flow to help the fire chief find the fish. When the fish moves close, the boat driver needs to stop or turn around swiftly so the netting guy can find the perfect angle to set the net.

When the fishing boat moves close to the fish, all the staff on the boat are prepared for the catch:

負責推桸竿的海腳高舉左邊桸竿,讓叉網斜放船緣,所有船員屏氣凝神,等待火長將火把逐漸轉向左後方的叉網,引導魚群聚集。
「下落!」火長命令一下,海腳用力將叉網推入海下,待魚入網後,三、四個海腳利用槓桿原理齊壓桸竿,把靠在船邊的叉網撐起,活跳跳的青鱗魚掃過腳邊,直入貨艙,有時漁獲太多,三、四個男人還得跳起來壓才能把桸竿撐起來。
整個過程不到十秒,所有船員各司其職,一氣呵成,魚群大量聚集時,經常可見火長連蹦四、五次,海腳必須在一明一滅間,連續下網、收網、再舉網、下網、收網⋯⋯,豐收時,一個晚上可能得重複上百次。
蹦火仔重視團隊合作,駕駛和火長、火長和抄網手的默契缺一不可。

The fisherman who is responsible for pulling the poles raises the left pole to set the net on the edge of the boat. All the staff hold their breath and wait for the fire chief to turn the fire and direct the fish swarm to the net set at the left tail side of the boat.
Once the fire chief gives the order, saying “Put it down,” the netting team push the net into the sea. After the fish come into the net, the netting team presses the poles and uses the lever principle to bring the net up. The lively sardines are dragged past the fishermen’s feet and thrown directly into the trunk. Sometimes there are too many fish [in the net], and three or four fishermen need to work together to bring up the net.
The whole process is finished within 10 seconds or so. Everyone on the boat has their own responsibility and they need to work together. When there are a lot of fish, the fire chief may decide to set the jolting fire up four or five times in a row, and the netting team need to set the net, pull the net, and raise the net again and again, repeating the cycle many times. When there is a big harvest, the fishing teams might need to repeat this process hundreds of times in one night.
The technique of jolting fire emphasizes team work. The camaraderie between the boat driver and the fire chief and between the fire chief and the netting team is very important.

Watch the YouTube video made by News Market to see how the jolting fire teams work together to catch the fish.

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