For hundreds of years, fishermen in Taiwan have been catching sardines with the help of fiery stick held over the edge of a boat. The fish are so attracted to the light that they jump out of the water and into the nets of the fishermen.
Fire fishing is as simple as it is mesmerizing. Fishing boats head out to sea during the night, and light up a bamboo stick covered with sulfuric soil at one end to create a bright flame. The sulfur dissolves in the water and the gas produced then flashes with fire. Drawn to the light spectacle, sardines jump out of the water by the hundreds at a time and end up in the fishermen’s nets. Sulfuric fire fishing was developed during the period of Japanese Rule and is now practiced only in the Jinshan sulfur harbor.
There were once over 300 boats practicing fire fishing in Taiwan, but according to the local fishermen’s association in Jinshan District, north of Taipei, that number has dwindled to just three. A six-hour fishing session under the night sky can yield between three and four tons of sardines per boat, and the Taiwanese government even subsidizes the practice. On a really good night, a team of fishermen can earn up to $4,500, so why is this fascinating tradition dying?
Unfortunately, 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 don’t seem very impressed. The age of remaining fire fishermen averages at around 60 years old, and with no new blood in sight, the future of this fascinating tradition doesn’t look very bright.
Zheng Zhi-ming, a professor of religious studies at Fu Jen Catholic University, says that using sulfuric fire to catch fish in the northeast region of Taiwan was common two or three decades ago, but the rapid improvement of fishing equipment combined with the exodus of youths from fishing villages have led to the decline of a tradition that was once considered one of the eight must-see attractions in Jinshan.