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How Taiwan’s last ‘fire fishing’ boat is keeping tradition alive

Taiwan’s last remaining “fire fishing” boat.
John Mees/CNN
Taiwan's last remaining "fire fishing" boat is seen.
Taiwan’s last remaining “fire fishing” boat.
John Mees/CNN
Sardines rise to the water's surface.
Taiwan’s last remaining “fire fishing” boat.
John Mees/CNN
Taiwan's last remaining "fire fishing" boat is seen.
hypatia-h_224471f8426a5e07e36dc9cd116046d9-h_fe784144bacc72557b9879d039dedbb0.jpg
John Mees/CNN
Taiwan's last remaining "fire fishing" boat is seen.

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

As night falls, a group of fishermen set sail off the coast of northern Taiwan, where they prepare to catch sardines with a traditional method: fire.

Once they are at sea, a fisherman lights fire on a stick with acetylene gas — generated by adding water to calcium carbide, which locals call sulfuric stones.

A chaotic scene follows: Hundreds of glittering scaled sardines leap out of the sea like shooting stars, while other fishermen scoop them up in nets.

As the fishing gets underway, the pungent smell of the gas lingers in the air.

For centuries, local fishermen in northern Taiwan have been catching scaled sardines with fire. According to the New Taipei City’s Cultural Affairs Department, the earliest documentation of the technique involving calcium carbide is from around a century ago, during a period when the island was ruled by the Japanese.

The practice is believed to have originated from the Basay people, an aboriginal group who lived in the area for centuries.

As recently as six decades ago, some 100 fishing boats would set sail between May and August, illuminating the sea with soft yellow flames. But as the scaled sardines dropped in value, only a single fire fishing boat still exists in Taiwan today.

A practice dating back centuries

Hsu Cheng-cheng, a Taiwanese tour organizer, has been on a mission to keep the tradition alive.

Since 2012, Hsu has been running regular tours in Jinshan, a rural coastal town in northern Taiwan, allowing tourists to appreciate the tradition up close.

He explains that the fire fishing practice was widely adopted in the old days because it was effective in catching scaled sardines, which were popular in Taiwan.

“Back in the days, people would catch scaled sardines as food. The fish is sweet and has a lot of tiny bones, so it is rich in calcium,” he tells CNN. “The fish is usually pan fried or braised in soy sauce with shredded ginger.”

Scaled sardines were normally caught during the summer season because the fish would follow the water current through the Pacific Ocean to the shores of northern Taiwan.

Once the boat arrived at the fishing location, the fisherman responsible for lighting the fire — known as the “fire chief” — would instruct his team to add the right amount of water at the right time.

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

However, the tradition slowly faded away as the number of scaled sardines in the area dropped rapidly. The fish also gradually became less popular and cheaper, prompting many fishermen to retire and leave the industry.

Saving the tradition

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

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

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

Because it is no longer profitable to catch scaled sardines, Hsu’s tours have generated income for the fishermen, allowing them to carry on with the tradition and promote it to the rest of the world.

In 2015, the fire fishing tradition was listed by the local government as a “cultural asset”, raising awareness about 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 join the profession to carry on the family business.

Chien began learning how to catch sardines with fire soon after he finished a compulsory military service.

“My father 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 due to health issues. My father and uncles on the boat wanted to pass the tradition down to the next generation and they encouraged me to take over. That’s why I became 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 make the catch. “It’s a nocturnal job with heavy labor. When things get busy, we have to work from 4 p.m. all the way until 7 a.m.,” says Chien.

But the job is rewarding, 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 the authorities to keep the fire fishing tradition alive, but Chien says nothing is more pressing than bringing the fish back.

“Whether you want to promote it as a tourist attraction or increase the profitability of the business, it all goes back to the fish,” he explains. “If we don’t have any fish, it won’t be exciting for tourists, nor will it be possible to increase income.”

Meanwhile, Chien and Hsu have teamed up.

Hsu has been running 4.5-hour tours to showcase fire fishing for tourists and photo enthusiasts during the summer months. From Bisha Harbor in Keelung, a neighboring city of New Taipei, tourists can board a separate vessel that sails close to Chien’s fishing boat as it makes the catch.

The practice is fully catered to tourists: the fire fishing boat sails slower than usual, so that the boat filled with tourists can catch up; the fishermen also stay in one spot longer than usual so that people can capture the beauty of the scene with their cameras.

After catching the scaled sardines in front of tourists, most of the fish are subsequently released back to 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 to survive.

“If the fish are back again and such practice can create enough economic benefits, new fishermen might join, and the tradition might be revived,” says Hsu.

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Images by CNN’s John Mees.

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