It’s zero-dark thirty on the quiet waves near Jinshan, Taiwan. In a moment, all hell's gonna break loose. A deep, ear-splitting boom erupts. A blaze of fire and smoke explode into the night sky, and then the slow, stomach-turning stink of sulphur comes.
Suddenly, a swarm of fish leap out of the water in all directions, like mice scurrying for their life, as fishermen hastily corral them in small mesh nets. The scene is, to say the least, pee-in-your-pants terrifying.
This is the weird and wonderful world of traditional sulphuric fire fishing, or huanghuo buyu in Chinese, a traditional practice found only in Jinshan, a sleepy little port city near the northern tip of Taiwan.
Taiwanese fishermen use a bamboo torch and soft, yellow sulfuric rocks to ignite a fire fierce enough to drive a horde of thousands of Japanese silver-scaled sardines to the water’s surface.
If the fire lingers for too long, the boat and everyone onboard could explode.
Nighttime is when the fish are starving for light, says 71-year-old Ketong Lee, a boat captain who’s been fire fishing for fifty-plus years. Not to mention, there’s no room for mistakes either, warns Lee.
“Fire fishing can be dangerous,” he says. If the fire lingers for too long, the boat and everyone onboard could explode.
Sulphur is one of Jinshan’s most abundant natural resources, found everywhere from the village’s rocky golden cliffs to the murky-colored hot springs. Each fire fishing boat carries a metal cauldron full of these dusty sulphuric rocks, and they’re all rigged with metal pipes that feed the flammable gas into a long, skinny bamboo rod affixed to the boat’s rear, says Yushan Han, a professor at the National Taiwan University Institute of Fisheries Science.
The fire’s blinding brightness attracts the fish so fervently that they leap out of the water towards the smoldering light.
The fiery burst will corral the fish to the surface, bewitched by a process known as phototaxis. In other words, the fire’s blinding brightness attracts the fish so fervently that they leap out of the water towards the smoldering light.
A fast-dying artform
In its glory days, this painstaking practice was used by thousands of fishermen all across the lush islands of Taiwan, honed during Japanese colonial rule in Taiwan more than a century ago. Now, there are only four fire fishing boats left and a dwindling number of fishermen who still carry forth the knowledge.
“If there’s no one to continue the practice, it will disappear,” says 56-year-old fire fisherman Zhiyang Xie, taking a rest before he dives back into work again.
There are only four fire fishing boats left.
As the blazing summer sun dips below the horizon, the fishermen rise from their slumber. This is when the slog starts. Their work won’t end until the sun’s morning glow appears again and birdsong fills the Huangguang Fishing Harbor.
It’s the beginning of the fire fishing season here, which will last for three months in the summer, when silver-scaled sardines migrate down from Japan to Taiwan’s northern shores.
At the helm of the boat is the grizzled, gray-haired Captain Lee, barking orders to the rest of his motley crew. He’s the oldest among them, and therefore the highest in the pecking order. Fasten the ropes. Fill the tanks. Load the ice buckets.
But “controlling the sulphuric fire is the hardest part,” says Xie. “Fire masters are the rarest to find now.”
For these fishermen, sulphuric fire fishing is not just a way of life, but also a sacred form of art. Lee, like the others, wields decades of experience that’s been passed down from generation to generation, from father to son.
“It’s a lot like learning math,” he says, taking a small breather before diving into work again. Once you get the hang of things, the formulas, the rules, everything else just falls into place.
On a good night, the fishermen can catch hundreds of barrels of fish, up to three tons of sardines per boat, which can rake in as much as $4,500. But that’s just a tiny fraction of the larger fishing industry in Taiwan, says Professor Han.
Each kilogram only sells for a mere 33 cents—peanuts compared to the value of more popular fish breeds on the market.
Some days, the fish don’t even bite. The preparation is for all naught and a day’s worth of salary is lost to the sea.
“If you go out to sea everyday and don’t catch fish, there’s really nothing you can do about it. That’s just fate,” says Xie.
Tonight, as the evening sky unfolds, they suck on cigarettes and wait for the swarm of fish to arrive.