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Small Fishermen in an Uphill Battle

Saving Dwindling Oval Squid Stocks

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Saving Dwindling Oval Squid Stocks

Source:Ming-Tang Huang

Along Taiwan's north coast the stocks of squid are in decline. Fearing for their future, local fishermen have decided to fight for the sea creatures on which their livelihoods depend.

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Saving Dwindling Oval Squid Stocks

By Rebecca Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 495 )

As time ticks away Lin A-Kui peers into his bucket, which holds one solitary oval squid. "Looks like there’s no hope today either," he thinks to himself.

Around 9 p.m. Lin's swaying sampan finally returns to Dong'ao harbor. Lin's silhouette appears from the dim streetlight at the harbor front, his face revealing deep frustration over returning home empty-handed yet another time.

Skyrocketing Squid Prices

Oval squid is a prized ingredient in Japanese cuisine, and squid fishing used to be one of the main industries on Taiwan's northeastern coast. In recent years catches have been getting smaller, while squid prices have kept soaring. One catty of squid can fetch up to NT$350 in the market. During the Lunar New Year holiday period, the price can easily go up to NT$1,000.

Lin has made a living from the sea for his entire life. Witnessing the depletion of local squid stocks first hand, he and his fellow fishermen jumped into action. The men, all well into their sixties, decided to create breeding grounds to replenish squid stocks. With the help of Hsiao Ming-li, a youngster at just 34, they founded an association for the protection of sampan fishing resources in the Wanli area.

"Everyone hopes we will be able to raise and protect squid stocks to make fishing sustainable," says Hsiao, who grew up in a small fishing village. The shy fisherman is not very vocal, but he is well aware that local squid fishing is on the brink of collapse.

The fishermen's greatest enemies are recreational anglers and tourists who intrude upon their traditional fishing grounds even during the breeding season. Their second greatest enemy is other fishermen who use exploitative means to fish and carelessly discard their nets, damaging the coral reefs where the squid breed.

A video shot underwater by scuba diving coach Wang Kuo-chang shows the sea bottom covered with a thick, long-haired carpet consisting of several layers of discarded trawl nets.

"These thick layers of fishing nets cover the reefs and kill the black coral and gorgonian coral that squid need to lay their eggs, so they are forced to spawn on the nets," Wang explains. Only after seeing Wang's underwater video did the sampan fishermen, who operate at the surface of the sea during their everyday lives, finally understand that the irresponsible use of trammel nets is to blame for their smaller catches.

Tourism Returning to Simplicity

Against this backdrop fisherman Hsiao decided to change roles, turning into a guardian of the sea and its creatures.

"The fishermen catch squid only seasonally, but the tourists fish whenever they feel like it," laments Lee Chun-teh, another fisherman. While the local fishermen don't fish for squid during the breeding season in May and June every year so that stocks are replenished, the tourists have no qualms about angling for squid year-round.

Hsiao has urged the Coast Guard Administration and related government agencies to crack down on such activities and encourage tourists to stick to purely touristy pastimes.

"Many people learn to scuba dive, but once they are underwater they hunt for fish, and some even harvest the precious sea urchin Hemicentrotus Pulcherrimus. Even worse is that the recreational anglers have become so professional that they use handier and more sophisticated 'weapons' than the fishermen," notes Hsiao with indignation.

"We have management laws and regulations, but no one enforces them," Hsiao points out. Hsiao, the only association member with a university degree, has no choice but to keep drumming home the fishermen's message to government agencies.

He also persuaded the older fishermen to sign an appeal to the government demanding the prohibition of trawling and trammel net fishing, which severely damage marine habitats.

Without hesitation, the 56 association members signed their names to the appeal. And not much later they persuaded the 500-strong local fishery cooperative to follow suit. What is their goal? No more round-the-clock trammel net fishing in the waters off the Yeliu coast.

Hoping to restore the once abundant squid population, the veteran fishermen have also begun to study how to "breed" these semi-transparent mollusks. They experimented with artificial reefs using bundled bamboo plants, a method invented by well-known Taiwanese scuba diver-cum-environmentalist Kuo Tao-jen. And much to everyone's surprise, the squid stocks showed signs of recovery.

Hsiao has the ambition to establish a squid breeding area in the waters off Yeliu Geopark.

In May this year, the fishermen will go into the mountains to cut fresh bamboo. Scuba divers will then fix the shafts of bamboo onto concrete anchors on the sea floor. These underwater bamboo copses will provide an alternative breeding ground for squid.

The passionate Wang Kuo-chang also plans to install an underwater monitoring system, which will upload footage of mating and spawning squid to the Internet. "Everyone will be able to see what's going on down there," he enthuses. This will also help the activists prove that the area makes suitable squid breeding grounds.

Meanwhile, the veteran fishermen refuse to sit back and twiddle their thumbs. They will continue to go out to sea on their sampans, but this time to patrol the coast. "We will install a monitoring system similar to a car navigation system. Should we discover illegal fishing, we’ll report it directly to the authorities," Hsiao declares confidently. The only remaining problem is that the government still needs to green light the artificial bamboo reefs.

In the future, when the squid have returned and fish stocks are plentiful again, the fishermen will probably no longer need to catch fish to make a living. Instead, they could take tourists out to sea to show them the beauty of marine life.

Then fishermen would no longer be destroyers of the marine environment, but its true guardians.

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz


What Are Oval Squid?

"Oval squid," or bigfin reef squid, is the common name for sepioteuthis lessonianan. Oval squid have large oval fins extending from both sides of the body. They count among the well-known edible mollusks from Taiwan's northeastern coast. Squid is a popular seafood that has a firmer, chewier texture than cuttlefish.

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