Once at sea, a fisherman lights a stick with acetylene gas, generated by adding water to calcium carbide, which locals call sulfuric stones.
A chaotic scene ensues: Hundreds of scintillating sardines shoot out from the sea like shooting stars, while other fishermen collect them in nets.
As the fishing begins, the pungent smell of gas lingers in the air.
For centuries, local fishermen in northern Taiwan have caught scaled sardines with fire. According to the New Taipei City Department of Cultural Affairs, the earliest documentation of the technique involving calcium carbide dates back to about a century, when the island was ruled by the Japanese.
The practice is believed to originate from the Basay people, an indigenous group who have lived in the area for centuries.
Just six decades ago, a hundred fishing boats set sail between May and August, lighting the sea with soft yellow flames. But as the scaled sardines have lost value, there is still only one fire fishing boat in Taiwan today.
A practice dating back several centuries
Hsu Cheng-cheng, a Taiwanese tour operator, made it his mission to carry on the tradition.
Since 2012, Hsu has been organizing regular tours to Jinshan, a rural coastal town in northern Taiwan, allowing tourists to appreciate the tradition up close.
He explains that the practice of fire fishing was widely adopted in the past because it was effective in catching scaly sardines, which were popular in Taiwan.
“At the time, people would grab shelled sardines for food. Fish is sweet and has a lot of tiny bones, so it’s high in calcium, ”he told CNN. “The fish is usually pan-fried or braised in soy sauce with grated ginger. ”
Shelled sardines were normally caught during the summer season because the fish followed the current of water through the Pacific Ocean to the coast of northern Taiwan.
Once the boat arrived at the fishing spot, the fisherman tasked with lighting the fire – known as the “fire chief” – would ask his team to add the right amount of water at the right time.
The sardines, attracted by the light, jumped out of the water and into the fishing nets.
However, the tradition slowly faded as the number of shelled sardines in the area rapidly declined. Fish also gradually became less popular and cheaper, prompting many fishermen to retire and leave the industry.
Save the tradition
Hsu, 60, said he was inspired to save the tradition because it was an important part of local Taiwanese heritage.
“I had a strong feeling he was going to pass away soon,” he says.
Hsu, who has also led eco-tours, says he values the importance of cultural heritage because of its intertwined relationship with local ecology.
Because it is no longer profitable to fish for scaled sardines, Hsu’s tours have generated income for the fishermen, allowing them to carry on the tradition and promote it to the rest of the world.
In 2015, the tradition of fire fishing was classified by the local government as a “cultural asset”, raising awareness of the importance of preserving the practice.
Taiwan’s last “fire fishing” boat.
A glimmer of hope
While many fishermen retired due to demanding work and low income, Chien Shi-kai, 28, decided to join the profession to take over the family business.
Chien began learning to catch sardines with fire shortly after completing his compulsory military service.
“My dad owns one of the fire fishing boats, so it was natural for me to join 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 over. That’s why I became a fire chief in such a short time. “
Today, Chien is tasked with lighting the flame of Taiwan’s last fire fishing boat.
During the summer fishing season, he usually works all night fishing. “It’s a night job with hard work. When things are busy, we have to work from 4 pm until 7 am, ”explains Chien.
But the work is rewarding, he adds, as he enjoys the feeling of accomplishment when he hits the right spot and comes back with a big catch.
Various plans have been discussed between the community and the authorities to maintain the tradition of fire fishing, but Chien says nothing is more urgent than bringing back the fish.
“Whether you want to promote it as a tourist attraction or increase the profitability of the business, it all comes down to the fish,” he explains. “If we don’t have fish, it won’t be exciting for tourists, nor will it be possible to increase income. “
Meanwhile, Chien and Hsu have teamed up.
Hsu organized 4.5-hour tours to introduce fire fishing for tourists and photo enthusiasts during the summer months. From Bisha Port in Keelung, a town next to New Taipei, tourists can board a separate vessel that sails near Chien’s fishing boat while he takes the catch.
The practice is entirely aimed at tourists: the fire fishing boat sails slower than usual, so that the boat full of tourists can catch up; the fishermen also stay in the same place longer than usual so that people can capture the beauty of the scene with their cameras.
After catching the scaled sardines in front of the tourists, most of the fish are then released back to the sea. Hsu says this will hopefully allow the fish population to grow in the future.
He hopes the current business model can give the old tradition a chance to survive.
“If the fish are back and such a practice can create enough economic benefits, new fishermen could join in and the tradition could be revived,” Hsu explains.
Images by John Mees from CNN.