China: Bohai Clamming in Dalian

Heading out to lay the nets in the morning.
Heading out to lay the nets in the morning.

Fishing in Dalian, China: Trading a gift of booze for a ride in the boat

By Branson Quenzer

Sunrise is still hours away, yet the fishing harbor is bustling about. Not selling fish, clams, or muscles, but getting ready for harvest.

The boats are sheltered in a nicely constructed harbor but the water is littered with discarded paper instant noodle buckets, plastic bags of all colors and the boats are all precariously tied to one another. To move one boat, you have to untie two, sending the others adrift until they bump into another line of boats and then retied.

I approach a man whose tanned face glows in the darkness as he drags heavily on his cigarette. I ask him if I would be able to get on his boat and watch them do A full boat after a successful day of clamming. their morning work. His eyes squint and he really is in no mood for someone to interrupt his days work by risking a passenger on the boat. Another man and his crewmate approaches with a little more curiosity as white skin and blue eyes are not a common sight at 3 am at the dock, nor anywhere in rural China for that matter.

Meeting the Fishermen

I ask them the same question but with a little more local tongue. He responds positively, while the other suggests that it is too dark and I would be able to see nothing. The enthusiastic guy regurgitates what his co-fisherman says. I urged them to let that be my problem.

“I will not get in your way, and just want to have a look,” I said as I gave them a little peak of a nice bottle of baijiu (a Chinese high proof spirit) that I said was all theirs.

Lucky for me, curiosity and booze won them over. As the cigarettes got stomped out they said just be careful on the boat. I said, safety first and both of them nodded.

Their third buddy and boat driver was bringing the boat around. The skiffs are about 12 meters long, made entirely of crooked cuts of wood. The ribs of the boats protrude inward from the hull as there are no bottom boards and thus, one walks either step by step on the rib or in the wet trough. The bows have a small deck just enough to uncomfortably sit three crew members meshed together.

Fishing partners pose for a photo.
Fishing partners pose for a photo.

The “captain” stood in the rear with a hand crank two stroke motor that rattled the whole boat when wound up. The other two and I jumped up front on the only dry part of the boat, and I handed over the baijiu which was tucked into a crack for safe keeping. The keel protruded out the bow proudly and was a real solid chunk of wood which had a ‘lucky’ red ribbon tied around it. Chinese, in general, are a superstitious bunch. Fishermen are superstitious all over the world. But these men were not fisherman, they were more like farm labor hands on the sea as I was soon to find out.

Pulling out of the dark harbor, orange lights glow behind us from new high-rise developments as we head out into the black Bohai Sea. There is no “no-wake” zone and if there is nothing ahead, the throttle is on blast.

The Boat

These boats are rudimentary. Not much more than a motor on a piece of wood. The throttle is nothing more than a screw on the engine that gives it more or less gas. There is no captain’s chair and no captain’s wheel. A bent meatal pipe provides leverage left and right to rotate the motor back and forth. The boat doesn’t purr or putter along, it clacks and bangs and screams for forty-five minutes before we get to their set of buoys.

The sulphur bulbs from town now glow dimly, far in the distance. The moon is three quarters full yet only making a misty glow above as thin clouds keep it from making a moon shadow on our boat. There are three other glows on the boat. The men all had ambers glowing in front of their faces as cigarettes were lit one after another. They kept them pinched tightly between their lips as their hands were busy getting ready for the early morning haul, putting 50 cent cotton gloves on.

And as the real work began, an unexpected flash of light came out of the water. There was bioluminescence in the sea. As the water gently splashed off the bow or as the ropes were pulled through the water the microorganisms flashed their unique blue green natural hue.

Fishing Culture

A fisherman on the boat in Dalilan China. Branson Quenzer.
A fisherman on the boat in Dalilan China. Branson Quenzer.

The boats and clam nets are owned by a “boss.” The guys on the boats are workers. All of them are from the region but none are actual locals. None of their fathers were ocean farmers and all of them had children back in the villages they were from. They are in economic terms migrant workers and simply cheap labor. Their boss has thousands of rows of clam nets that dangle in the waters feeding, growing and getting ready for market.

It is not the boatmen’s duty to decide much. They leave when they are told and do their job. The boss relays info through a foreman at the harbor. They had not been paid in months.

Three men work in a team… one hooking a bag with a gaff and then gets help to pull it aboard. Meanwhile the other was hooking his bag hanging down from the buoy bellow. The man in the middle would step rib by rib back and forth helping the freshly retrieved bag over the side and into the hull, while the guy on the other end searched for his new bag of clams. They worked well as a team, never suggesting one was not pulling their weight.

Lots of Cursing

They did express words that relayed how heavy the bags were. ‘M*ther f*cker’ was heard many a times on extra heavy nets and ‘stupid bitch’ seemed to be common when the net was uncooperative and rolled down off the stack of nets that they were piling them into. These nets were two and a half meter long cylindrical mesh contraptions which were packed full of clams each lugged by hand over the side of the boat. The clam bags surely weighed twice what each man did.

Buoys out at sea ready for harvesting. Over and over this happened and that empty hull of a boat began to fill. The nets were bursting with spitting clams and stacked in two rows just behind the gaffing worker. One on top of another from starboard to port the clams piled up. The seas were calm and the sheer weight of the clams being pulled over rocked the boat when they were hoisted in and then again as they were tossed aside.

I asked if they were tired, and I don’t think they liked that. They repeated it over and over… are you tired? Are you tired? And when an extra-large bag came aboard there was a mother f*cker are you tired? It wasn’t spiteful and soon became a sort of way to get through the morning with some random strange guy from some far away land with a camera.

All in a Day’s Work

With all their rubber fishing Dickies still loosely fastened, the captain turned starboard a 180 degrees back to port. For the moment heavy lifting was done and it was time for a smoke. The moon was gone now and the blue black of the morning had lightened and hints of orange started far out in the horizon. The sun was trying to come up before we got back for the offload. The engine screamed as if telling the sun that the boat would make it back for a meal at sunrise.

As we pull into the harbor for offload, nobody readies the ropes to be tossed. The preferred method is to have the all wood boats knock into each other, then throttle up, pushing their way into the crowd and nudging out the other boats. Then the lines are thrown and tied to one another and one is secured to the dock for offload.

Before we are even cinched up the crane had lowered its hook into the hull and the loops on the end of the clam pots were being hooked on. All the nets were removed in two large clumps and lowered onto land ready to be cleaned and sorted by women.

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