烏魚潮:一百廿萬尾的驚喜!

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1993 / 2月

文‧陳淑美 圖‧張良綱


烏魚大豐收囉!今年冬天,位於台中的梧棲漁港屢屢傳出令人雀躍的訊息。許多漁民好像中了大獎。

烏魚,不是每年都會來嗎?不是都在南部捕嗎?捕個上百萬尾、賺個幾千萬算什麼?今年的烏魚潮有什麼重要?為什麼稀奇?


去年聖誕節,當插著四支國旗的茄定籍漁船「進拱榮」號浩蕩地駛進興達港時,岸邊鞭炮與歡呼聲齊響。一支國旗表示一萬尾烏魚,一網四萬尾,興達港漁會的人都說,好久沒有這樣風光了。進拱榮船長陳敏雄則說,「運氣好,今年對船員有交代了」。這船烏魚後來以每尾台幣二百六十五元賣出,總共賺了一千多萬元。

烏魚潮驟降驟起

「一冬攏賺嘛也賺這烏魚」,陳敏雄表示,在近海漁業資源枯竭、漁民老是抓不到魚的今天,一年一度的烏魚期,正是他們最主要的財源之一。像今年,烏魚漁況稍好,收入可佔全年收入一半以上。

今年,可算是漁民幾年來最好的光景了。據台灣省水產試驗所的統計,直至民國八十二年元月十五日為止,全省烏魚捕獲量共一百廿萬尾,比去年烏魚期多了七十餘萬尾,創六年以來捕獲量最高的紀錄。而今年烏魚群主要聚集地台中港外海,更以破天荒的七十八萬尾捕獲量,創有史以來新高。

台灣省水產試驗所高雄分所助理研究員黃朝盛指出,烏魚一年來一次,據歷年的記錄,捕獲量超過百萬尾以上為「豐魚年」。民國六十八年間,烏魚捕獲量最高曾達二百五十多萬尾。到了七十五年卻驟降為八萬多尾。此後六年漁獲一直低迷,今年又從谷底暴升(詳圖)。這起落消長之間,連研究人員也大呼不可思議,究竟有何奧秘?

到寶島繁衍子孫

烏魚學名鯔魚,廣泛分佈在熱、溫帶海域,加拿大、澳洲、巴西都有其行蹤。就好像守信的候鳥一樣,烏魚每年報到台灣一次,時間約在冬季十一月下旬到一月下旬。

烏魚從何而來?為何會到台灣?有些迷團至今仍不清楚。例如生長地,有人說是長江沿岸,也有人說是福建沿海,漁民更據名推測其來自烏(黑)龍江沿岸。

至於來台灣的原因,「台灣是寶島啊!」台灣省水產試驗所所長廖一久幽默地形容,台灣就好像烏魚的第二故鄉一樣,成熟的烏魚要產卵生子,總要到台灣海峽過過水,卵才會肥美,體態才會雄健。

水試所漁業生物系主任郭慶老指出,生物習性外,物理因素也推著烏魚南下。當冬天大陸冷高壓直下,成長的烏魚受不了嚴寒,便南下到較溫暖的台灣海峽。

烏魚產完卵後到哪兒去?大部分的烏魚產完卵後,便順著潮水遠去,回到生長地方。有些產後的母魚會躲在岩洞休息,等海水溫度回升再回去,這些隔一陣子才出現的烏魚,「只吃不動,因而頭大身肥」,茄定漁民鄭福男形容,這種魚便稱為「台灣烏」或「回頭烏」。

誰有「魚腥命」,托神來庇祐!

台灣居民捕烏魚的歷史由來已久,至少從一六五○年的明朝末年,就有漁獲紀錄。水試所高雄分所楊鴻嘉表示,當時大陸漁民來台捕魚,以烏魚最多,也最重要。熱遮蘭城日誌記載,一六五七到五八年間,烏魚的平均年獲量有卅萬尾,魚卵三萬斤以上,收穫十分豐盛。

當時,南部打狗、堯港、下淡水是漁業中心。來台漁民須向據台的荷蘭人註冊,對漁區、目的地、捕魚期限皆有規定,捕完漁後還需繳稅。漁民來台捕魚時,在漁場附近暫居的漁寮,後來成為早期漁村的濫觴。

捕烏期間甚短,漁民常說烏魚只在冬至前後十日出現,其實烏魚群聚集、易於捕撈的「盛魚期」,每年只有十餘天。因此捕烏魚,運氣的成份很大。「要有『魚腥命』」,台中港一名漁民形容,有沒有賺錢命,誰也不能預測。

在多年來以捕烏魚著名的高雄茄定港,每到捕烏魚期,各處廟宇香火鼎盛。漁民在出海前總會先向神明祈願,希望魚兒守信到來,漁船才能滿載而歸。有些漁民先跟神明祈願,若是此去滿載,他日回來必定報恩。例如再奉三牲、四果、擺戲或電影一棚等,今年烏魚豐收,傳說茄定媽祖宮作戲日程,已排到農曆二月十九日。

捕烏魚的人也有種種禁忌,像是開捕時須擇日,捕魚前曾參加喪禮者、或是女人等皆不宜上船,用膳盛飯時不稱「底飯」(閩南語),而稱「添飯」;滿載算魚時,數雙不數單等都是。有些漁船將香符掛在船頭,有些在船身漆上吉祥圖案,只為討個吉利。

冬天暖了,烏魚群不見了!

和往年一樣,去年十二月廿一日冬至前,西南外海上便已陸續聚集許多漁船,大家都殷切盼望冷峰快快來臨。「烏魚吃冷度」,漁民林旺說。水試所調查,最適合烏魚生活的水溫為攝氏廿一到廿三度,水溫太冷或太熱,烏魚群都不會來到。

洄游的烏魚又為何群聚?奧妙的影響在海流。水試所漁況海況研究室林雅民指出,當大陸冷水團下來,從東海岸北上繞來的黑潮暖水支流,兩道潮徑的冷暖水相推擠,就好像兩堵圍牆一樣,將魚群團團圍住,形成良好魚場。這便是海洋學上所稱的「障壁效果」。

魚群為何不往下游?一般推測是因為水溫驟變,魚群受到驚嚇,因而停滯不前。

過去幾年烏魚產量不穩,研究人員企圖尋找原因,很重要的一個發現是,大陸冷水團雖然下至台灣,但不是推的不夠持續,就是來的不夠南邊,或是力量不夠強,無法與黑潮支流形成推擠,不能形成魚群。

「也就是說,烏魚並沒有不來報到,只是分散或沉入海底洄游」,林雅民說,漁民因而抓不到魚。

環境改變,烏魚不愛來了?

這跟幾年來全球氣溫的改變有關。林雅民指出,據日本學者的研究,由於溫室效應,十年來全球平均溫度提高了兩度。暖冬的發生,不僅影響大陸冷高壓,也使太平洋重要的暖水潮流——黑潮路線異常,大大影響魚群生態。

今年的情況又如何?林雅民指出,今年雖然也是暖冬,但是因為大陸高壓幾次持續南下,跟黑潮的暖水支流配合得恰恰好,「等溫線密集,魚群又找到適水溫」,因而有幾年少見的大豐收。

海況的變化之外,也有人認為,烏魚產量不穩,是因為台灣西南海岸的環境已經改變,烏魚不願意來了。

水試所楊鴻嘉認為,從西部海岸一路下來,如台中火力發電廠、茄定興達電廠等,就建在漁場邊,沿岸河口排出的工業廢水,連人都不敢靠近,更何況魚?

許多漁民的捕魚經驗也證實,烏魚群的確有離岸愈來愈遠的現象。

但精準的研究調查尚未能證明污染與烏魚的關係,甚至還找到完全對立的數據。

接近台中火力發電廠的梧棲港,這幾年的魚獲量不減反增,去年為前年的八倍,簡直跌破專家眼鏡。

黃朝盛推測,如此異常可能因為比起其他魚類,烏魚較能抗污染。

另外,台中港的反常現象,正是這幾年不正常魚況的連鎖反應——烏魚群的漁場正在日漸偏北。

漁場偏北,「烏魚大港」易位

以往烏魚是順著冷水南下,從新竹、梧棲、王功、台西、安平、茄定、東港,一直游到恆春,如果沒被捕捉,就在恆春七星岩產卵後離去。傳說在茄定興達港前,魚卵接近飽滿成熟,魚肉肥美,是老饕最愛。因此漁民也都愛在南部外海撈捕,再到茄定販賣,位在茄定的興達港因有「烏魚大港」之稱。

但是近十年,林雅民指出,只要不是豐魚年,主魚場都在台南安平以北,而且有越來越北的傾向。

這六年,儘管全省各地漁民都捕不到魚,但是台中港卻一支獨秀,年年迭創佳績。「七十九與八十一年全省烏魚漁獲量,三分之二以上在台中外海所得」,台中區漁會烏魚速報員王坐元說,台中港似已成為另一個「烏魚大港」。

這又跟冷水團下不來南部來的海況有關,而這幾年漁船設備的更新,像是兩艘船組合成大包圍似的「巾著網」、漁船馬力加大,及對講機的改進等,使得往昔沒法辦到的捕魚工作,都能順利完成。

過度捕撈,年輕魚遭殃

這是許多老漁民難以想像的。已經七十四歲的蘇澳漁民簡萬財說,台灣海峽的冬天向以形勢險惡聞名,「十年前,冬天在台中以北的海峽捕魚,玩命啊!」他描述說,以往風浪大,船艙常被打破進水,過去捕魚的人站在馬力小的柴油船上,簡直沒法站穩。但科技的進步,把這些都克服了。

但這卻為魚兒帶來了浩劫。在烏魚產量不穩的討論中,烏魚的資源是否減少也是重點話題。

有人認為,烏魚在還沒有來台灣前,就被人捕走了。大陸漁民被懷疑是罪魁禍首,漁民甚至指證歷歷說,曾在福建沿岸見人炸烏。「那些都是還在成長的魚仔,炸掉了,就沒法游下來了」,漁民鄭福男說。

較為人信服的說法是,這幾年因為漁船設備改進,漁民已過度捕撈了。

水試所高雄分所所長蘇偉成曾根據烏魚的生長速度、歷年漁獲量等,推估一個大致的「烏魚持續生長量」,凡超過一百四十萬尾,都算過度捕撈。算起來,在民國七十四年以前,我們的確有五、六年跑過頭了。

捕獲烏魚的年紀也有越來越年輕的傾向。

郭慶老指出,民國六十六、七年間,漁民還有捕獲七、八歲以上高齡魚(烏魚的壽命約為八歲)的紀錄,到了七十四年以後,則都是四歲以下。黃朝盛的研究也指出,越是欠魚年,低齡魚越多。

不捕疲勞魚、回頭烏

沒魚,蝦也好!沒大魚,就抓小魚?但若是小魚也沒了,怎麼辦?

「不能趕盡殺絕呀」,漁民簡萬財說,過去漁民不大願意捕捉游到茄定以南的烏魚,因為這些都是即將產下軟軟的「水蛋」的成熟魚,卵跟魚的價格都不好。「回頭烏」也不大抓,因為都是產完卵的「疲勞魚」,肉泡泡的,不好吃。如此的共識反而維持了烏魚的生生不息。

但是現在不一樣了,近海底棲性魚類受到污染的影響,資源日漸枯竭。遠洋漁業受到各國兩百海浬經濟海域保護的規定,也越來越不景氣。如今的漁民是有魚就抓,「愛拚才會贏」!

烏魚吉兆慶豐年

廖一久所長常勸漁民不要把魚捕盡,應該留一些給下一代,漁民卻回答:「這代做這已經很衰(命不好)了,下一代還做呀?!」他認為,這不一定是每個漁民的心態,但值得注意。

黃朝盛認為,也許可以訂若干辦法,如不許漁民捕「回頭烏」,或限制在茄定以南作業等,透過漁民自律組織切實執行。廖一久所長則希望烏魚的人工放流能早日大量地實施。

廖所長說,「烏魚既然選中我們這塊土地,不遠千里來此作客,而且跟著我們走過久遠歲月,我們就得義不容辭地保護牠。」

他認為,像生長在大海卻溯河產卵的鮭、鱒等魚類資源保護的例子,都可供漁民參考。美日加等國政府為鮭鱒的資源保護,互相訂定遵守公約,相約放流多少,才可捕撈多少,這幾年來資源已有復甦現象。

今年的烏魚豐年可是吉兆?以前人有烏魚「四年一豐」的說法,今年可是一個好循環的開端?

不管是漁民、烏魚的研究者,乃至愛吃烏魚子的老饕都會希望,這個中國人的古老的節氣能永續存在。年年從報到的烏魚得知:「可不是快過年了?看!烏魚大豐收呢!」

〔圖片說明〕

P.14

烏魚歷年年產量

P.14

這些都是將產「水蛋」的魚,卵不好吃,所賣價錢頓時滑落。

P.16

烏魚是漁民最重要的財源之一,捕完烏魚好過冬,一年的工作就此畫下休止符。

P.17

台灣附近海域潮流及水溫圖

P.17

烏魚價值在其卵巢,在魚市場內行的魚販從魚肚一擠,露出黃黃的卵汁即為母魚,否則就是公魚。

P.17

水溫跟海流是影響烏魚群聚的重要條件。圖中攝氏廿一到廿三度處是魚群聚集所在,漁民可以據此研判烏魚群的位置。(台灣省水產試驗所提供)

P.18

位在興達港的火力發電廠就建在茄定漁港邊,八十一年底,漁獲大受影響的漁民,群聚向電廠索賠,釀成新聞事件。

P.19

比較正規的烏漁船都用巾著網,兩艘船共用一組,是大型圍網的一種,捕來效果最好。

P.19

(蔡智本參考莊索圖繪)

P.20

上等的烏魚子,黃裡透白,外表肥厚,聞起來沒有腥味。

P.20

曬乾壓扁是加工烏魚子的重要過程。曝曬的烏魚得翻轉兩、三次,才能完全曬乾。

P.20

烏魚子是年節最佳禮品,也是日本觀光客的最愛。(邱瑞金攝)

P.21

茄定鄉白砂崙剛好在烏魚產期做醮,晾曬在廣場的烏魚子與做醮牌樓相互輝映,原本台幣三百來塊的生烏魚卵巢經加工,價錢一下子提高三倍。

P.22

台灣烏魚苗盛產於淡水到新竹一帶。苗栗後龍這位漁民捕了一晚,才撈了十尾。他說,以前守在河口,一下子就撈一堆,十餘年前,他的最高紀錄是兩萬多尾。

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近期文章

EN

Record Year for Fish--Mullet Over!

Jackie Chen /photos courtesy of Vincent Chang /tr. by Phil Newell

The great grey mullet haul! In winter of this year, startling news repeatedly came out of Wuhsi fishing harbor in Taichung. But don't the grey mullet come to Taiwan every winter? Aren't they always caught in the south? Is it such big deal to catch more than a million, earning tens of millions of dollars? What's so important about this year's catch? Why is it so miraculous?


Last Christmas, when the fishing boat "Chin Kung Jung," based in Chiating harbor, came triumphantly sailing into the docks at Hsingta flying four national flags, firecrackers and cheers resounded from the seaside. One flag represents 10,000 grey mullet. One boat with four flags, say the people of the Hsingta Fishermen's Association, is something that hasn't been seen for a long time. Chin Kung Jung captain Chen Min-hsiung says, "We were lucky. This year things have really paid off for the crew." The grey mullet from this ship were later sold at NT$265 apiece, earning more than NT$10 million in all.

Something fishy going on around here:

"When winter comes, then the only thing to earn money on is these fish," says Chen Min-hsiung. Today, with coastal fishing resources nearly exhausted, and fishermen unable to catch much of anything, the annual grey mullet season is one of their main sources of income. This year, for instance, if their luck with the grey mullet is good, then income from that could account for more than half their earnings for the whole year.

You could say that this year was the most exciting for fishermen in the past several. According to statistics of the Taiwan Fisheries Research Institute (TFRI), by January 15 of 1993, the grey mullet catch for the whole province was 1.2 million, more than 700,000 more than last year, and the highest number in the last six years. And for the sea off of Taichung Harbor, where the grey mullet have concentrated this year, the catch has been a startling 780,000, the highest in history.

Huang Chao-sheng, an associate researcher at the Kaohsiung branch of the TFRI, says that the grey mullet come but once a year, and that according to records, any year where the catch exceeds one million can be considered a "bumper crop." In 1979, the catch reached its highest at more than 2.5 million. By 1986 it had bottomed out at just 80,000. It remained low for the next six years, then suddenly skyrocketed this year (see chart). Even specialists find this sudden rise and fall indecipherable; what's going on here?

Coming to Taiwan to spawn:

The scientific name for the grey mullet is Mugil cephalus Linnaeus. It is spread across tropical and temperate climatic zones, and its trails can be followed everywhere from Canada to Australia to Brazil. Like a reliable migratory bird, the grey mullet reports in at Taiwan once a year, in winter, from about the last third of November to the last part of January.

Where does the grey mullet come from? Why does it come to Taiwan? Some mysteries still aren't very clear. As for where they grow up, some say its the mouth of the Yangtse, others the seacoast off of Fukien. Some even surmise, based on a misapprehension of the name, that they come from Heilungkiang in mainland China (the first syllable of whose name is similar to the sound for "fish").

As for why they come to Taiwan, "Taiwan is the 'beautiful isle,'" laughs Liao I-chiu, director general at TFRI. Taiwan is like a second home for the grey mullet. Adult fish always pass through the Taiwan Straits when they go for a place to spawn; that's why they are always rich in eggs and why they are so strong and healthy.

Kuo Chin-lau, chief of the Institute's Fishery Biology Department, points out that, besides this innate biological habit, physical factors also force them south. When the cold fronts come off the continent in winter, growing grey mullet cannot tolerate the bitter chill, and come south to the warmer climes of the Taiwan Strait.

And where do they go after they spawn? Most grey mullet just go with the flow, following the tide back to their place of origin after laying their eggs. Some females will hang around hiding in rocks or caves to rest, waiting for the seawater temperature to rise before going home. These grey mullet, that appear only after an interval of time has passed, "have eaten so much they can barely move, so they have large heads and plump bodies," describes Chiating fisherman Cheng Fu-nan. This type of fish is then called the "Taiwan mullet" or the "late-returning" mullet.

Fishing for a lucky break:

The history of pisciculture among residents of Taiwan is long indeed. There are records of fishing from at least 1650, at the tail end of the Ming dynasty. Yang Hung-chia of the Kaohsiung branch of the TFRI says that for fishermen coming from mainland China to Taiwan to operate at that time, the grey mullet was the most numerous and most important catch. It is recorded in the daily log of Zeelandia (Anping in Tainan County) that from 1657-l658, the average annual catch of grey mullet was 300,000 plus 30,000 catties of eggs, a very rich harvest.

At that time, Takou and Yaokang in the south, and the lower Tamsui in the north, were the main centers of the fishing industry. Piscators coming to Taiwan had to register with the Dutch authorities then occupying the island. There were regulations covering fishing zones, target areas, and fishing season, and they had to pay taxes after finishing their work. The huts set up temporarily near the fishing grounds by those who came to Taiwan were the origins of early fishing villages.

The mullet catching season is very brief. Fishermen often say that the grey mullet only appears between ten days before and ten days after the beginning of winter. In fact, the "harvest season" when they are forming schools and are easiest to catch is only about ten-plus days per annum. Thus in hunting the grey mullet, luck plays an important part. "You have to have 'fish fortune,'" says one angler from Taichung. And no one can know beforehand whether or not they have the Midas touch.

In Chiating harbor in Kaohsiung, which has been famous for many years for its catches of grey mullet, every year when grey mullet season arrives the temples are filled with burning incense. Before going out to sea, fishermen will always go to the temple to pray, hoping the fish will keep their promise and come back, so that the fishing boats can return home stuffed to the gills. Some even tell the gods that if they can come home with a full boat, they will come back to the temple to repay the deity's beneficence. They might for instance offer the "three sacrifices," the "four fruits," or even sponsor a performance or film. This bumper-harvest year, it is said that the performance schedule for the temple in Chiating dedicated to Matsu, goddess of the sea, is already booked through the 19th day of the 2nd month after the Lunar New Year.

When winter's warm, the mullet disappear!

Fishing folk also have a variety of taboos. For example, it is necessary to choose an auspicious day for the catch; women and those who have just been to funerals are not allowed on board the boats; when eating, you can't eat "till you see the bottom of the bowl" (which would be like a ship with an empty hold), but have to "add rice" (which suggests a bountiful haul); when the boat is full and the fish are being counted, they should be counted in even numbers, not in odd numbers. Some skiffs mount an amulet at the bow, while others paint auspicious pictures on the boats, all to appease the fickle fates.

As in previous years, before the official start of winter on December 21 of 1992, many fishing boats had already congregated off the southwest coast of Taiwan, with everyone anxiously hoping the cold weather would soon arrive. "The grey mullet live on the cold," says sailor Lin Wang. The TFRI has discovered that the most suitable temperature for grey mullet is 21-23 degrees celsius, and the schools will not open if the temperature is too cold or too warm.

Why do the swirling mullet form schools? The subtle influence comes from the currents. Lin Ya-min of the TFRI's sea conditions research lab, points out that when the cold water comes down from the mainland, the Kuroshio Current which circles around the northeast part of the island brings warm water that intersects with it. The cold and warm currents push and pull against one another, becoming almost like two walls. This traps the fish in groups, creating an excellent fishing ground. This is what oceanographers describe as the "barricading effect."

Why don't the fish schools swim on? The main speculation is that the water temperature suddenly changes, and the fish are startled, so they stay in one place and don't go forward.

Researchers have endeavored to find the reasons why grey mullet production has been unstable in recent years. One important discovery is that although the cold water mass from the mainland heads south to Taiwan, if it isn't sustained, which is to say if it doesn't come far enough south, then it won't be strong enough to get into that push-pull dynamic with the Kuroshio Current, so that the fish will not form into schools.

"That is to say, the grey mullet have by no means failed to show up; its just that they are scattered around or swirling about in deep water," says Lin Ya-min. So the fishermen cannot snare their prey.

But don't the mullet like coming here anymore?

This is connected to recent global warming. Lin states that, according to the work of Japanese scholars, because of the greenhouse effect, the average global temperature has increased two degrees over the past ten years. The occurrence of warm winters has not only affected the mainland cold fronts, it has also made the main warm current in the Pacific, the Kuroshio, abnormal, severely affecting the ocean ecology.

As for this year, although it has also been a warm winter, because the cold fronts from the mainland have repeatedly persisted in coming down south, this has fit in perfectly with the warm water of the Kuroshio. "When the warm stream is concentrated, then the schools of fish have found the temperatures they are looking for," explains Lin, so that this winter has witnessed a haul rarely seen in recent years.

Besides changes in the condition of the sea, some people believe that the instability in grey mullet production is due to the fact that the environment off the southwest coast of Taiwan has already been altered, so that the grey mullet are no longer willing to come.

The TFRI's Yang Hung-chia notes that as you go southward along the west coast of Taiwan, things like the Taichung electrical generating plant and the Hsingta electrical station in Chiating have been built right on fishing grounds. And even people aren't willing to venture near the mouths of rivers with the polluted waste water they spew out, so why should fish?

The experience of many anglers also attests that the schools of grey mullet have been moving farther and farther off the coast.

But meticulous studies have not been able to confirm any link between pollution and grey mullet behavior, and have even discovered completely contradictory numbers. For instance, at Wuhsi harbor, where the Taichung electrical plant is located, the volume of fish nabbed has not only not gone down, it has increased. This year it is eight times the level of a year ago, which has simply knocked specialists right out. Huang Chao-sheng speculates that this extraordinary development may be because the grey mullet is more resistant to pollution than most other fish.

Further, the unusual situation in Taichung port is also a market response to another abnormal fish situation of the past several years: The fishing grounds for the grey mullet have been moving northward.

The grey mullet head north, the great grey mullet harbors change location:

In the past the grey mullet would move south with the cold water, from Hsinchu to Wuhsi, Wangkung, Taihsi, Anping, Chiating, and Tungkang, swimming right on down to the tip of Taiwan at Hengchun. If they hadn't yet been intercepted, they would spawn at the Chihsing seaside near Hengchun and then depart. It is said that finnicky eaters most love the fish off Chiating, when they are nearly full with eggs and the fish is plump and beautiful to behold. Thus piscators in the past usually preferred to do their work off the southern coast, and then sell in Chiating, so that Hsingta harbor, located in Chiating, got the reputation as being the "great grey mullet harbor."

But in the last decade, notes Lin Ya-min, unless it is the absolute peak of the season, the main grounds have all been north of Anping in Tainan County. Moreover, there has been a northward trend.

In the last six years, while the fishermen on the rest of the island have been unable to make any net gains, Taichung harbor has been in a league of its own, setting records year after year. "Last year and this year, more than two-thirds of the total grey mullet catch for the province has been caught in the seas off of Taichung," says Wang Tsuo-yuan, a staff member responsible for grey mullet at the Taichung Area Fishermen's Association. It seems that Taichung has now become the "great grey mullet harbor."

This is also related to the fact that the cold fronts have not been able to come further southward. Improvements in fishing gear over the past few years, such as two boats cooperating to create a single large trap, increasing the horsepower of fishing boat motors, and improvements in two-way radios, have enabled the work of catching the fish in winter, unattainable in recent years, to go along swimmingly in the warmer weather.

Water out of fish:

This is something that's hard for many older fishermen to imagine. Chien Wan-tsai, a 74-year-old from Suao, says that winters in the Taiwan Strait have always been famous for their risks and dangers. "Ten years ago, it was taking your life into your hands to try to catch fish north of Taichung in winter," is how he puts it. The wind and waves were high, and often pilothouses were destroyed by incoming water. In the past, on boats with low-horsepower diesel engines, it wasn't even possible to keep your footing.

But technical progress has brought disaster for our finned friends. Amidst all the discussion of the variations in grey mullet production, whether or not overall grey mullet resources are declining is an important topic.

Some contend that grey mullet are being intercepted by others even before they get to Taiwan. Mainland Chinese fishermen are the prime suspects. As proof, fishermen point to instance after instance of sightings of mainlanders using explosives to catch fish off of Fukien Province. "Those are still small fry just growing up, and if they're blown up they won't be swimming any farther," says fisherman Cheng Fu-nan.

A more persuasive theory is that because of improvements in fishing equipment over the past few years, the boats have already overfished the area.

Su Wei-cheng, director of the Kaohsiung branch of the TFRI, has estimated a "grey mullet continuous growth volume" based on the rate of maturation of the mullet, its annual catch, and so on. Any annual haul over 1.4 million should be considered overfishing. When you figure it out, before 1985, there were definitely five or six years of over-doing it.

There has also been a trend whereby the age of the grey mullet netted has been going downward.

Kuo Chin-lau notes that between 1977 and 1978, "elderly" fish of seven or eight were still being caught (the life expectancy of a grey mullet is about eight years). By 1985, they were all less than four. The research of Huang Chao-sheng has also found that the worse the year in terms of overall catch, the more young fish are caught.

Don't catch tired or late-returning fish:

An old Taiwanese saying has it: If there are no fish, then shrimp will be fine! So, if there are no big fish, then is it OK to catch ones in their prime? But if there are no more youngsters, what then?

"Don't be in such a rush to wipe them out," says fisherman Chien Wan-tsai. In the past fishermen weren't willing to catch fish that had swum south of Chiating, because these were all adults that were ready to lay their eggs, and the prices for the fish or the eggs were not so good. "Late-returning" fish were also not caught very often, because they were all "tuckered out" after laying their eggs, and the meat was all soaked and not very tasty. This kind of consensus in fact sustained the fish generation after generation.

But now it's different. Coastal aquatic life has been adversely affected by pollution, and the resources there have withered. Long-range fishing has been hampered by the two hundred mile maritime economic zones set out by other nations, so it is less and less prosperous. Today fishermen catch anything they can get their hooks into: "no pain, no gain!"

Liao I-chiu, who spends a lot of time in face-to-face contact with fishing folk, sometimes appeals to them not to exhaust the fish, and to leave a few for the next generation. But the fishermen reply, "It's already unlucky enough to be doing this job this generation-will there still be a next generation doing it?!" He believes that though not every fisherman necessarily feels this way, it's worth keeping an eye on.

Grey mullet an auspicious sign for the new year:

Huang Chao-sheng suggests that perhaps a few methods could be adopted, such as not permitting fishermen to catch "late-returning" fish, or limiting activity south of Chiating. These could be implemented in-house by the fishing self-regulatory bodies. Liao I-chiu hopes that deliberate conservation of grey mullet can be undertaken in a large scale soon.

Director Liao says, "Since the grey mullet have chosen this land of ours and come a long way to be our guests, and have been with us for such a long time, we have the urgent responsibility to protect them."

He suggests that the example of the protection accorded to the salmon, which lives at sea but swims upstream to spawn, can be provided to the fishermen for reference.

In order to protect the salmon, the governments of the United States, Canada, and Japan have all agreed to a treaty whereby each would leave untouched a certain amount, and catch only a certain amount. In the past few years there have already been signs of a resurgence of this resource.

Is this year's bumper crop of grey mullet an auspicious sign of things to come? In the past people had the saying that for the grey mullet "a good run lasts four years." Is this year the start of a positive period?

No matter whether it be fishermen, researchers of the grey mullet, or even connoisseurs, all hope that this traditional Chinese cycle can continue uninterrupted. Every year when the fish come to report, you can know: "Isn't New Year's coming soon? Look-it's another huge haul of grey mullet!"

[Picture Caption]

p.14

Annual variation of catches for grey mullet from 1966 to 1992

These fish all produce their own versions of "Chinese caviar," but if the eggs aren't tasty, the prices plummet.

p.16

The grey mullet is one of the most important economic sources for fishermen. A good mullet catch can get one through the winter, so it can mean from the year's work.

p.17

The value of the grey mullet lies in its roe. At the fish market, insiders know that a squeeze of the belly shows the telltale yellow egg juice for a female; otherwise it's a male.

p.17

The water temperature is a key factor in determining whether the fish form schools. This is a satellite photo taken in the winter of 1992-1993. The places in the photo where the water is from 20-23 degrees celsius is where the mullet gather, and the fishermen can figure out from this where the schools will be. (photo courtesy of the Taiwan Fisheries Research Institute)

p.18

The electrical generating plant at Hsingta has been built right next to the Chiating to the fishing port. In 1992, fishermen whose catch was adversely affected gathered before the plant to demand compensation, making for a media event.

p.19

The more orthodox boats use purse seines, with two boats working together, to create a huge trap. This is most effective for catching fish.

p.19

(sketched by Tsai Chih-pen)

p.20

High class mullet eggs are yellow in the middle and transparent white outside, with a thick exterior. They don't have that "fishy" aroma when sniffed.

p.20

Sun-drying flattened ova is an important way to process grey mullet. The mullet have to be turned over two or three times in order to be properly dried.

p.20

Mullet eggs are a great New Year's gift, and are also very popular with Japanese tourists. (photo by Diago Chiu)

p.21

There's a religious festival in Paishalun in Chiehting Rural Township that coincides with the mullet season. Mullet eggs dry in the sun in front of the ceremonial arch. After being processed, fresh mullet ova that sold for NT$300 can go for three times as much.

p.22

The prime location for catching mullet is now from Tamsui to Hsinchu. This boat from Miaoli, after the end of the trail, has caught only ten fish despite working all right. The captain says that in the past you just had to wait by the mouth of the river to catch a big pile, and his record, set more than ten years ago, was 20,000.

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