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Photo Essay: Meet Sanya’s Fishing Baroness

By Chen Liang and Wu Gang
The fishing boat uses about 300 powerful lights to attract fish to the surface. Photos: Chen Liang/Caixin
The fishing boat uses about 300 powerful lights to attract fish to the surface. Photos: Chen Liang/Caixin
(Sanya, Hainan province) — After the “strictest-ever” fishing ban in the South China Sea was lifted in mid-August, fisherwoman Liang Fujiao was one of the first to head out to sea.

Liang, who says she was born in a fishing boat in the 1960s, has become one of Sanya’s most successful businesswomen. She owns a fleet of 10 fishing boats that cost more than 16 million yuan ($2.46 million) each, as well as several restaurants and a training school for fishermen in the resort town in tropical Hainan Island, close to China’s southern tip. This is her story.

As the eldest daughter, Liang did almost everything her parents did, including casting nets to catch fish, piloting the boat and cooking. She watched her brothers and sisters grow up and leave the boat to go to school one after another, but she stayed on. She carried on with the fishing business and the traditional life at sea that has been passed down through the generations.

But fishing off the coast of Sanya, in the southern island province of Hainan, has become more difficult over the years because the catch close to the shoreline has dwindled. This year’s fishing ban has lasted for 40 days longer than usual to ensure that the area’s fish stock has time to replenish.

On the day the moratorium was lifted, the Qiong Sanya Yu 72063 blew its whistle and sailed out to a fishing zone 30 nautical miles (34.5 miles) from the port. The sea turned from green to a deep blue as the boat cut through the water.

At 7:30 p.m., the vessel’s captain, Yang Fujin, found traces of shoals of fish through a sonar device. He ordered the crew to stop the boat and turn on 300 powerful lamps of 2,000 watts each. The lamps lit the water with a blinding light, and the fish gathered to the surface like moths flying to a candle flame.

Three hours later, the lights went off. The crew started to cast nets. They had to be fast when casting the nets and pulling them back, or the fish would wriggle out.

Liang put on a bamboo hat — a traditional hat that local fishermen wear — grabbed a flashlight and walked to the bow of the boat to oversee the process.

Suddenly, a rope used to pull the nets suddenly snapped. The fishermen didn’t know what to do. Liang immediately sprang to action, asking the fishermen to start pulling from the other side.

Yang said that because this year’s moratorium lasted for so much longer than in previous years, skillful workers were hard to find because many left the trade, and the maintenance of fishing boats have also been delayed.

“The conditions at sea are volatile, too many unexpected things, and we can’t take it too hard,” Yang said.

Liang had not worked on fishing boats for years as she had to take care of her other businesses. But a few years ago, after her husband died, Liang gradually started to pass on the reins of her businesses to her daughter so that Liang could take the time to return to her old way of life and work on the boats again.

Liang said most fishermen she knew sold their boats and started other businesses, and their children prefer piloting sightseeing boats for tourist companies instead of continuing to fish.

“For one thing, the bar to enter the fishing sector has been raised higher, as you have to buy a big boat to go out into the high seas,” Liang said. “Also, it’s so painful to work at sea.”

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A fisherman takes a break on the fishing vessel Qiong Sanya Yu 72063 on Aug 16. “You may think fishing at sea is tiresome. But we make a living from it,” he said. Photos: Chen Liang/Caixin


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Fishermen put on their overalls and gather at the ship’s deck, ready to start another day of work at sea. Photos: Chen Liang/Caixin


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Fishermen pull ropes to lift loaded fishing nets out of water. It is the most important and demanding part of the fishing operation, and unexpected problems can crop up any minute. Photos: Chen Liang/Caixin


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Fishermen pull hard on the nets on Qiong Qionghai Yu 02258 on Aug. 19. They caught 15,000 kilograms (33,000 pounds) of fish in one go. Photos: Chen Liang/Caixin


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Liang Fujiao, owner of Qiong Sanya Yu 72063, carries a flashlight while overseeing the fishermen pulling the nets on the morning of Aug. 17. Photos: Chen Liang/Caixin


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Experienced fishermen know how to take a rest even during a short break, as fishing is very physically demanding. Photos: Chen Liang/Caixin


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Two fishermen chat at the bow while boat owner Liang Fujiao stands near the pilothouse. Photos: Chen Liang/Caixin


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Fishermen unload the catch from a bigger boat to a smaller one in Wanning, Hainan province, on Aug. 20. The fishing boat caught 15,000 kilograms of fish after casting the nets once, which is a rare bumper catch compared with hauls of recent years. Photos: Chen Liang/Caixin

Contact reporter Wu Gang (gangwu@caixin.com)
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