A Prawny Tale
How did Taiwan Become a Haven for Recreational Prawn-Fishing?
Prawn fishing is a popular pastime among distraction-hungry urbanites in Taiwan. Have you ever wondered how prawn fishing evolved into a leisure activity?
How did Taiwan Become a Haven for Recreational Prawn-Fishing?By Emery Chen
Editors' Note: This article is translated from an op-ed from Opinion@CommonWealth
Stunning Giant Freshwater Prawns
Shrimp farming is estimated to have as long a history in Taiwan as milkfish farming, because shrimp are usually produced in a polyculture with milkfish. When fishermen catch milkfish fry in coastal waters, they usually end up also catching shrimp larvae, which are thrown into aquaculture seawater ponds, where they are fed until they reach the desired size.
However, in the early days of the aquaculture industry, Taiwan lacked the technology to cultivate shrimp larvae. Since all shrimp were caught from sea, yield from the seawater ponds was naturally rather low.
The world’s first artificial propagation of grass prawns [Penaeus monodon, also known as Asian tiger shrimp] was successfully perfected only after the Rockefeller Foundation provided funding and hired Taiwanese aquaculture expert Liao I-chiu just after he received his doctorate from the University of Tokyo in Japan to do relevant research.
That was in 1968. From then on, grass prawn farming boomed, nearly making Taiwan the world’s top producer in terms of output. Grass prawns also gradually became a popular item on the menus of moderately priced restaurants.
Of course, more important were the efforts of Liao and his fellow researchers. The research of Liao and his team laid the foundation for Taiwan's subsequent massive production increase in aquaculture. Liao went on to head the Tungkang Marine Laboratory in Pingtung County, where he continued his scientific research, specializing in larviculture, aquaculture and stock enhancement.
Before the 1970s, Taiwan had perfected several methods for the artificial cultivation of various shrimp larvae. However, in contrast to prawns, these require saltwater, which means that such aquaculture farms must normally be close to the sea. This restriction does not apply to freshwater aquaculture. Since Taiwan's freshwater prawns generally have smaller bodies, they are not a lucrative product. As a result, aquaculture farmers were never really interested in developing this kind of prawn farming.
Imported freshwater prawns, the kind of “Thai prawns” that you can catch in leisure prawn fishing pools today, were much larger. The official name of these prawns is “giant freshwater prawn” or “giant river prawn” [Macrobrachium rosenbergii], and they stand out due to distinct features: They sport a pair of long, blue claws and are raised in freshwater.
Most importantly, they are much larger.
Thanks to their impressive size, bigger than other freshwater prawns, giant freshwater prawns fetch higher prices at the market. Therefore, the farming of giant freshwater prawns gradually became a major industry around the world after scientists with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) under the United Nations developed aquaculture techniques for this prawn species.
The same goes for Taiwan’s brush with giant freshwater prawns. In 1970, Taiwan also received some prawn larvae from the FAO. At the end of the following year, the Tungkang Marine Laboratory had perfected the artificial culture of giant freshwater prawns and began to promote the technique to local prawn farmers. Eventually these lively, giant prawns would make their way into Taiwan's recreational prawn fishing ponds, and from there directly onto your dinner plate.
Prawns That Don't Sell Get Caught Instead
However, when freshwater prawn farming was still in its infancy, the crustaceans did not yet sell well because grass prawns, which were more competitive on quality and price, had already conquered the entire prawn market. Only when Taiwan’s grass prawns production collapsed in 1987 due to pathological changes did the giant freshwater prawn get a chance to claw back market share.
On the other hand, the giant freshwater prawns did not sell as well as grass prawns in the early days because low-temperature refrigeration technology was not yet well developed. The farmers needed to find a way out given that their product was not doing well in either the domestic or the overseas food market.
Necessity is the mother of invention. In the early 1980s, an ingenious new use for giant freshwater prawns outside the restaurant business made its debut: exclusive use in recreational fishing.
People generally hold that prawn fishing pools first appeared in the south of Taiwan. Haiwai Xueren magazine published an article in 1983 observing that people in Pingtung were suddenly “enthusiastically fishing giant freshwater prawns” because local aquaculture farms had directly “opened their prawn ponds to the public for fishing.” The article might have documented the true origin of Taiwan's indoor prawn fishing pastime – the aquaculture ponds of Pingtung before 1983.
The idea of opening up entire aquaculture ponds to fishing by the public is not really a new one, since Taiwan's fish farmers entered this business early on. In 1973, some were already running establishments for recreational fishing in cities.
Yet, the entertainment factor of catching fish vs. catching prawns is not necessarily the same. Catching prawns generally requires less strength but is usually quickly met with success. Catching a heap of prawns within the short span of two hours translates into a sense of achievement.
Such a fast-paced recreational activity perfectly matches the busy tempo of city life. More importantly, since the large and robust giant freshwater prawns are raised in freshwater, they can be kept in concrete basins inside the city.
As a result, prawn farmers very quickly moved their operations to the city, opening establishments dedicated to prawn fishing. Prawn fishing initially became popular at private aquaculture farms on the outskirts of Taipei. Small prawn fishing stalls appeared at night markets before larger indoor venues became the rule. During that period, prawn fishing became all the rage as an affordable leisure activity.
The indoor prawn- fishing craze also brightened the business prospects of giant freshwater prawn farming. In the late 1980s, numerous prawn fishing venues sprang up along the Gaoping River in Pingtung County as farmland was converted into aquaculture ponds for freshwater prawns. Quite a few novice aquaculture farmers made a fortune from the freshwater prawn boom. As a matter of course, these success stories took a turn for the worse after Taiwan's prawn fishing fad fizzled.
Affordable Fun for Ordinary People
When I was little, I lived in Taipei’s Sanchong District, where many residents hailed from other cities and counties across Taiwan. Most people living there were blue collar workers, and the area also boasted far too many prawn fishing places. Around the early 1990s, when my parents were still in their twenties and thirties, they naturally took me prawn fishing.
The prawn fishing pools back then didn't have the large countertop ovens that you find today, only a charcoal barbecue grill. We threaded the prawns that we caught on skewers, seasoned them with salt, and then threw them on the grill.
Thinking back on it, it was really unpretentious entertainment. It was about catching prawns and eating them while playing games on an electronic device.
But it was precisely because it was such a simple pastime that it was able to fall in step with the times as Taiwan's economy took off, dramatically increasing demand for consumption-oriented entertainment. That's how prawn fishing kept an entire generation company as it grew up, with countless young people sitting around a pond whiling away their time and fighting boredom.
Essentially, prawn fishing is about fishing for prawns, from the older generation to this generation of ours.
From Famine to Economic Boom
Subsequently, Taiwan's prawn fishing places weren’t thriving any longer. The craze just fizzled out.
In fact, not a few people have openly expressed their disdain for the pastime. In one of his books, Taiwanese essayist Lin Qing-xuan once said prawn fishing is “idiotic and does not achieve anything meaningful.”
In 1991, when prawn fishing was still flourishing and expanding, Strange Tales of Taiwan, a production by the theater group Performance Workshop, also featured a section that derided prawn fishing as being “all about fast fishing, fast killing, fast grilling, fast eating” with the sole objective of quick satiation. More than 20 years later, we earthlings have many choices to satisfy our consumerist entertainment needs, all of which probably all work a bit faster than prawn fishing. And most of us don't even think that there is anything wrong with such a fast tempo.
I’m actually quite curious as to whether the Taiwanese people still hold specific views about the prawn fishing business (many foreigners feel it's quite a novel affair). After all, this leisure activity whose pace is clearly not fast enough anymore seems headed toward its demise and is not much talked about these days. The last time people noticed that prawn fishing pools exist was probably when [American basketball star] Jeremy Lin went prawn fishing.
Fine. Let's first leave aside what every one of us thinks. If we reminisce a little about the stories mentioned in this essay, we can pull a few very interesting historical scenes from Taiwan's prawn fishing pools.
For instance, the research on food production (including Taiwan's aquaculture) that the Rockefeller Foundation sponsored at the time was meant to solve the food shortages facing mankind. The US$75,000 in funding that the foundation provided every year helped turn Taiwan into a grass prawn production empire.
Then the import, cultivation and breeding of giant freshwater prawns in the 1970s spawned a completely unexpected product. The surprising part is that these giant prawns, raised in freshwater pools, came to have an entertainment function. As one prawn fishing venue after the other sprang up, a new kind of drinking place that served heavily seasoned prawn dishes along with cold beer was born. These two types of places provided important avenues for relaxation and distraction for Taiwan's disheartened salaried workers
Who would have thought in the beginning that an investment program aiming to solve the global food crisis would help relieve the depression and frustration of Taiwan's many office workers?
Sometimes history moves in mysterious ways.
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