Tales from a Greek Island


How to Fish

TOURISTS WHO COME to the village think of it as a fishing village, that all of us are fishermen and that we all use nets. They are wrong on all counts. Only a handful of villagers fish for a living, the rest potter around with varying degrees of enthusiasm and success. Some of them with no success at all. There are many ways to fish with and without nets. The technique used will depend on the season, the weather, the boat and the fish being hunted. It will also depend on how hungry you are.
    Let us take nets for example. Fishermen from Kalymnos and further afield come here in big boats, 15 metres or more, and trawl, indiscriminately hoovering up fish and fauna and destroying the coral and the sea bed prairies that are precious feeding grounds for many species. These fishermen lead a hard life. They sleep on blankets on their nets, turn by turn, two on, two off, working day and night. There are no toilets on their boats, no fresh water for washing. There are no showers. Sometimes they come to the village for an hour or two to wait for the ferry boat, so they can ship their catch to Rhodes. They come to Anna's to buy chocolate and lemonade and then queue up, ragged and barefoot, to phone mothers, wives and girlfriends to say that they are all right and to ask for news. If you look closely at the crew on these boats you will notice that they resemble one another. They are father and sons, or a group of brothers, or an uncle with nephews. Sometimes it is a couple with their children leading this nomadic life.

What they all have in common is a desire to make money and retire.

     What they all have in common is a desire to make money and retire. I once asked a friend of mine if he liked the life of a fisherman. He thought for a while:
What I want is a small house with a balcony by the sea. I want to sit there and eat souvlaki every day.
    As well as trawling, the big boats also lay out drift nets to catch fish as they go to feed off the beaches in the evening and as they return to deep water in the morning. Locals also use drift nets, but as our boats are smaller the nets are not so long and we can discriminate as to the species we catch. Sometimes we use much smaller nets to catch small fish called atherinos. The system is to cast the net in a loop along the rocky coast, throw stones to drive the little fish into the net and then pull the net into the boat carefully so that the fish are scooped up. While one man can do this alone the process can be time consuming. It may take several attempts to find a shoal of fish and if you catch them it takes a long time to extract them from the nets. Still, they are tasty and good bait and, if you have company and it is not too windy, this is a pleasant way to fish.
    Atherinos are used as bait for katheti, a lightweight line used vertically with a weight and four hooks. Katheti are mainly used to catch perka and hannos which are the ingredients of a good fish soup. Only in Greece does it make sense to go fishing for soup. Atherinos are also used as bait for paragadi. Most visitors will have seen baskets around the village full of nylon line and with hundreds of hooks along the rim. That is a paragadi. The line can be up to one kilometre long and, every three metres, side lines with a hook are tied at right angles. The nylon is heavyweight and expensive and so are the hooks. It can take two to three days to make a paragadi, hours to catch the bait and several hours to hook the bait to the paragadi. Then you go and throw it into the sea! But you do not throw it anywhere. You decide the type of fish you want to catch and you lay the line over rocks at the depth and at the time where those fish will be feeding. Often you lay the line out at dusk and pick it up two or more hours later in the dark. I won't tell you the best spots to fish with paragadi. That is my secret. But I will tell you that if you are rowing a boat, or using your engine to go slowly as the line is laid out in the dark and large baited hooks are whizzing by your ear, then you had better trust your partner.

Perhaps the most esoteric and maybe the most ancient form of fishing is sexual fishing for sepia.

    There are many forms of fishing that have evolved over the years. Perhaps the most esoteric and maybe the most ancient is sexual fishing for sepia. These are harmless little creatures from the same family as octopus and squid. Under the water, in the daylight, if you see them as you dive, they are transparent as glass and stunningly beautiful. They are also tasty. The system is to catch a female sepia as she comes into the rocks to lay her eggs. You do this with a small net on the end of a pole. You make certain that it is indeed a female, not an easy task, tie her to the boat with a hook and line and row slowly along the shore. Suddenly she changes colour, black and white stripes run electrically up and down her body. A male is ready to pounce! When it does, you scoop up the surprised suitor with your net and put it into a bucket of water. You have to hurry, however, or you will be sprayed with black ink.
    Generally, the smaller the boat the smarter the fisherman has to be, the more selective they can be and the less damage they do to the environment. Hand line fishing is generally more ecological than fishing with nets, but the most ecological method is diving or spear fishing. When you dive, you see the fish, you know how big it is and you decide whether or not to kill it. You can decide only to kill mature fish that have bred and thus ensure there are fish for future generations. Diving can be exciting and dangerous. It is also a psychedelic experience. Nothing prepares you for the sunburst of colours, nor the light and life all around you as you enter this strange and alien world. It is addictive as you dive down, again and again. You try to relax to save energy.     You don't swim down, but glide, letting gravity and the weights round your waist do the work. I only dive to around ten metres, but the air seems far away when you are that deep and you are on the edge of panic as you swim up to the silver surface. Your breath is gone, and your strength, and there is no margin for error. Hour after hour you dream of big fish. You see a shadow under a rock or at the entrance to a cave; you dive, you hover. Nothing. Back to the surface. You see the shadow again, a tail perhaps. A bit deep for you, but possible. Position yourself, take two deep breaths, hold your nose to protect your eardrums and glide down, arm and harpoon gun out at full stretch. It is a fish. Slowly come close, slowly, slowly. The fish sees you, you fire. Hit. An explosion of blood and scales and you swim gently to the surface, making sure not to lose the fish from the harpoon. It is a nice one, a sea bream . Supper. Agony as it fights, as you carefully transfer it from the harpoon to your line and move on to look for the next fish and the next and the next.
     Hours pass. This is hypnotic work, addictive, but tiring. The sea is calm now, the sun going down. You swim to the boat and put your gun inside. You unbuckle the weights carefully, so as not to lose them, and heave them over the side. Now the difficult part. You grab the side of the boat, push yourself under the sea, then up like a cork and over, flippers flailing, chest heaving and you are in the boat. The entry lacks dignity, but brings a sense of relief. Anchored off shore alone, if you can't get into the boat you are dead.
There are more than twenty ways of fishing here, but whatever the method there is one certainty. There are less fish now than there were, even ten years ago. If the slaughter and the pollution and destruction of habitat continues there will be no fish left. Your children will not know of the magic of the sea, or the taste of fresh fish. Some of us try to fish in a sustainable way. The customers could insist that we all fish sensibly. All you have to do is ask.