Keepers of the flame: Taiwan keeps the art of fire fishing alive

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TAIPEI (Reuters) - Under the darkness of the night sky, a small group of Taiwan fishermen set sail off the northeast coast, light a fire on the end of a bamboo stick using chemicals and wait for the fish to come.

Like a magnet, hundreds of sardines leap out of the water toward the bright light waved by one fisherman and his colleagues angle their nets and haul in the catch.

There used to be 300 boats using the traditional fire fishing method each night but now there are only three, according to the local fishermen’s association in Jinshan District, north of Taipei.

The 30 or so remaining fishermen have a three-month seasonal window from May to July where they can catch sardines using fire, a practice that dates back hundreds of years, the association says.

The fishermen spend up to six hours a night at sea to catch between three and four tons of sardines, which can earn them, on a really good night, over $4,500. Only bad weather forces them to shore early.

“My daily earnings are unstable, but for a living I need to sail,” Jian Kun, a 60-year-old boat owner, tells Reuters of the fire fishermen’s plight.

The government provides a subsidy to the fishermen to encourage them to continue fire fishing and also filed the technique to the Department of Cultural Affairs for registration as a cultural asset in 2014.

And the annual Jinshan Sulphuric Fire Fishing festival was started in 2013 to help promote the practice, while photography tours have been set up to generate interest and boost finances.

The method of lighting the fire has been updated to include the use of calcium carbide, but the boats are old, with little to ease the physical toll on the fishermen who average around 60 years old.

Writing by Patrick Johnston in Singapore. Editing by Nick Macfie