Taiwan's Last Traditional Fishing Village Is Running Out of Fish
Taiwan’s coastal waters have been overfished since the 1950s, thanks to destructive fishing practices like gillnetting. But because Taiwan is running out of fish, the nets are the only way to earn a decent income. It’s an endless cycle.
Mahi mahi at the Chenggong fish market. All photos by the author.
Dinsi Yang used to be able to make a decent living spearfishing and harpooning in Chenggong, Taiwan.
Located on the east coast of the island nation, the petite village is home to roughly 17,025 people, according to the most recent census. The bulk of inhabitants, including Yang, are from the Amis tribe, an aboriginal group in Taiwan. They are one of 16 officially recognized aboriginal groups in Taiwan; in Chenggong, they're recognized for their relationship with the sea.
"We are the ocean tribe," Yang tells me.
Yang used to fish full-time—swimming out weekly, spending hours alone spearfishing, and hawking his catches at the local marketplace, where fish is sold off auction-style.
"Back in the day we'd make goggles out of broken glass," he says. "We didn't have wetsuits or fins. And we would make our own spears."
During swordfish season, he'd ride out to the high seas on his brother's boat, high on adrenaline. They'd spend hours scanning the open water, looking for a glimpse of a swordfish. Eventually they'd see one and Yang would jump to the ledge at the bow of the ship, which is purposefully tilted down at a terrifying 45-degree angle, lift up a 75-pound harpoon, aim, and kill.
"You need to have really good balance. If you fall, you will either die or break your legs in half," he says.
At 55 years old, Yang is considered one of the youngest free divers in town. He still hangs out in the ocean regularly, although most of the fish and crustaceans he catches now are saved for personal consumption. Mainly, he's now a freelance repairman and construction worker.
"Before, fishing was my profession," he says. "But now it's a hobby. There's no more fish."
Taiwan's coastal waters have been considered overfished since the 1950s. Thirty years ago, Taiwan's shipment of fish along the coast was 340,000 tons, according to the Department of Fisheries. In 2014, that number declined by half to just 170,000. In northern Taiwan alone, the number of coastal fish species has decreased from 120 to about 30 over the past three decades.
"Taiwan is a seafood country, not an ocean country," Nate Maynard, a Taiwan-based researcher for Global Ocean Trust says. "Despite the decline [in fish], Taiwan has done little to enforce existing environmental protection laws or recover fish stocks. Taiwan is a seafood country in that it cares about fish, and not about the ocean or environmental protection." Almost all of the seafood consumed on the island is imported or raised on aquaculture farms.
This isn't a problem unique to Taiwan. Coastal fisheries have been devastated across the globe with the introduction of destructive fishing methods like gillnetting and bottom trawling, which indiscriminately destroys everything in its path.
Chenggong is, in many ways, the final frontier. It's the last traditional fishing village in Taiwan, an island whose seafood products sell to the tune of roughly $2 billion in annual exports.
While there are other towns with a significant fishing industry, like Dongguan on the western coast of Taiwan, they are mainly populated by giant industrial boats focused on long-distance fishing. "Taiwan is one of the top six countries for distant water fishing," ocean campaigner Lisa Tsai from Green Peace East Asia says. Sixty percent of fish caught by Taiwanese vessels are caught outside of Taiwan's territorial waters, and a bulk of that seafood is exported to countries like Japan and the United States.
At Chenggong, the boats are still largely family-owned and small, with just three to four crewmembers. Chenggong is also unique in that most of its fishing is confined to Taiwan's territorial waters. However, the volume of fish available within these 12 nautical miles has been steadily declining. There's been a 30 percent decrease in catch in the last decade.
But despite the numbers, fishing is still the main industry in Chenggong. It's a town with a visible aging population. By and large, the streets are empty all day. In the morning there's a small vegetable market, where elderly vendors sit silently on the street corners with their pickles and vegetables. The local 7-Eleven is Chenggong's most popular store. To say that the daily fish market is the liveliest part of town is not saying much.
I spend an afternoon there, where I meet 85-year-old Wangzi Zhang, a veteran fisherman who has been fishing since he was 18. Zhang only speaks Taiwanese and Japanese; he was born at the tail end of the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, before the flood of Mainland Chinese escapees arrived on the island and Mandarin became the most common language. He notes that it was the Japanese who built the fish harbor in Chenggong and much of the town.
"No one wants to do this job anymore," Zhang says. "There's not enough money in it because there's not as much fish."
The work is currently being outsourced to migrant workers from the Philippines and Indonesia. While Taiwanese people are the ship captains and retain control of the fishing boats, few of the actual fishermen are locals. Chenggong's youth population has largely left for the cities.
"The fish are also getting smaller," Zhang says. "Once I caught a [848-pound] bluefin tuna. You don't get fish that size anymore. There used to be mountains of mahi mahi here. Every year, fish quantity visibly decreases."
The largest fish I see during my three days in Chenggong is a 306-pound shark. There's a significant number of sharks at the market, in fact. Thresher varieties, with their long tails, are the most common. There's the occasional hammerhead. The sharks, I'm told, have not been caught intentionally; they are bycatch.
After much back and forth, the mako is sold off. A worker comes over and saws off its fin. This is the most prized part of a shark.
"This is troubling because many shark populations are vulnerable," Maynard says.
I spot a couple of large sunfish, which can grow up to the size of a small Volkswagen. The sunfish is a vulnerable species, according to The International Union for Conservation of Nature.
"Unlike dolphins or whales, sharks and sunfish are usually considered ugly or scary," Maynard says. "They don't have the same levels of protection and need help."
The most sought-after fish are the tunas. There's blue and yellowfin. An occasional swordfish is spotted in the mix, sometimes with its bill already cut off.
"There's no greater feeling in the world than catching one of those," Yang tells me. "I get such an adrenaline rush." For Yang, the swordfish is a symbol of pride. He scurries up the ledge of a boat, picks up the harpoon, and throws it into the shallow water.
At the harbor, he gives me a tour of his brother's boat.
"You're doing it wrong!" his brother teases. He jumps up behind Yang and starts waving his hands frantically.
"You always need someone behind the harpooner to direct and tell the captain where to steer," he tells me.
Swordfish harpooning is a dying practice, which is a shame because it is one of the most sustainable methods of fishing.
"Harpooning is sustainable because you only pick a few kinds of fish, you have choice over which fish, and it takes time to catch one," Maynard explains. "It requires effort and focus." New technologies like industrial gillnets, which prioritize yield and take very little skill in comparison, are the replacements.
"The problem is that these new technologies and nets require less and less skill from the fishermen," a man who goes by Guava tells me at the fish market. "You put the nets in, fish get stuck, and then people will leave the nets in the ocean." The nets are made out of a rigid plastic that do not decompose. Ironically, the fish caught by gill nets are sold at a lower price because by the time they are pulled up to the boat, they are significantly damaged.
Guava works as a researcher and is employed by the local fishery. He doesn't want his real name to be published because his funding comes from the government.
The logic is ironic: destructive nets are depleting Taiwan's coastal fisheries. And because Taiwan is running out of fish, the nets are the only way to earn a decent income. It's an endless cycle.
"So what's the solution?" I ask Guava. "What can people do?"
"For one, the Taiwanese government should abolish gillnets. This was a recommendation that I submitted," he says.
"Why haven't they?"
"The government represents the interests of the fishermen," he says.
One of the fishermen joins in on the conversation.
"What can we do? We have to feed our families," he says.
The government is more concerned with subsidies for the fishing boats than with protecting the environment, according to Asoka Lin, an executive at Oceanus Honors Gaia, a Taiwanese ocean education NGO.
Illegal fishing, she notes, is another problem. Taiwan's coast guards, who are responsible with enforcing fishing laws, don't get as many benefits from catching illegal fishing practices like excessive bottom trawling.
"They get more points from exposing drug smuggling, and so they don't have as much of an incentive to stop illegal fishing," she says.
She adds: "The fishermen are only concerned about their generation's survival. They don't think their children will fish. They don't want them to fish."
And they don't.
"My mother used to go foraging for seaweed when I was younger," says Lukai Zu, a 26-year-old Amis resident in Chenggong. "The ocean is our refrigerator."
I ask Zu if she knows anything about seaweed. She shakes her head sadly. "I went to school in Taipei," she says. "Our generation was encouraged to go to the city and work. We were forced to learn Mandarin. I can barely speak the Amis language."
This is part of the problem. The Amis youth who grow up in Chenggong are encouraged to take jobs in the cities and to assimilate with the Mandarin-speaking majority in Taiwan. Fishing, foraging, and spearing are not encouraged.
"To stop overfishing we need to offer viable alternatives," Maynard says. "Tourism, a rapidly growing global industry, offers a way for fishermen to utilize their maritime knowledge for education and recreation, rather than destruction."
Yang and I head to the local museum, not that far off from the fish market. There's a display on swordfish harpooning, and staff worker asks if we would like to watch a short documentary on the practice. "It's a lovely film," she says. "It's not an easy industry."
I decline politely, but before I can explain to her that Yang is a walking encyclopedia on the topic, Yang picks up the harpoon on display—legs bent, harpoon perched over his shoulder, ready to strike.
The worker gasps.
"How did you pick that up? Most people can't even lift that!" she exclaims, pulling out her camera for a photo.
"This is what I do," Yang tells her.
A small crowd begins to gather around us and I watch, in amusement, as Yang quickly becomes the most interesting artifact on display.
Later, I try my hand at the harpoon. It's nearly twice my height. I can barely lift it off the ground.