THE PHILIPPINES : Tuna Treasure
Text and photography by Eric Pasquier
Fresh yellow-fin tuna is the precious raw material used for sushi and sashimi, and one fish can fetch thousands of Yen on the Japanese fish market. Fishermen in the waters south of Mindanao,
The Philippines, roam the sea in their little 'pump boats' to haul in the swimming gold with their bare hands.
The Queen Liz cruises along at eight knots, cutting through the shimmering waters of a fine bright morning with its two lateral floaters. At this speed, it should reach the waters of the Celebes, which abound in fish, by afternoon.
After pushing off from the beaches at General Santos, in the south-easternmost portion of the Philippines, the boat has been cruising for the last four days. The playful ballet of dolphins can be seen escorting the speeding boat. For the last two days, they have been virtually ever-present, filling the air with their squeaks during moments of calm.
From time to time a shiny projectile shoots across the deck with a fleeting, shuffling sound: the flying fish take off on the crest of a wave and, after hovering over the surface for almost 100 metres, disappear with a tiny splash into the sea. To the fishermen, the flying fish are simply part of the scenery of their life and work. Nothing.
The sight of a shark’s fin, on the other hand, grips the men with visible excitement. An excitement born not of fear, but of knowing that the hunt is closing in on its prey…
When they see the first shark, they know that a second is not far away and that their presence also means that, some 100 metres below, are the precious tuna they have travelled so far for. This is the moment to throw in the bait they have fished over the course of the last several days. With great agility every member of the crew, though beaten down hard by the tropical sun, emerges from his torpor to go to his post. With quick, precise movements, the men attach stones to the bait to make them sink. In this part of the Sulawesi Sea, the fishermen’s lines are never still for long. More and more, the Filipinos from General Santos come to these waters to fish, instead of the waters of Sarangani Bay, the other major fishing site, located just six hours off the coast of the Philippines.
It requires more time and money to come here, where fishing is actually illegal. But here, men can catch up to one tuna an hour. Once the bait is lowered into the water, and the tuna begin to bite, the hardest part is yet to come. The 1.8m-diameter nylon line can carry a load of between 100-120 kilos. Holding the line in their calloused hands, the fishermen are able to estimate the size of their catch as soon as a fish bites.
“An 80-kilogram fish has the power of a gasoline engine,” says one. “Fighting against such a considerable opponent requires more than just brute strength: you must also know how to be devious.” The fisherman’s technique consists essentially of taking advantage of the tuna’s panic, which fights furiously once it is hooked, pulling in the line as much as possible as the fish swims towards the surface, and holding on for dear life when it attempts to dive back down. After 45 minutes and often more than an hour of struggle, the tuna is thrown into the hull of the boat, where blocks of ice keep it fresh until it is unloaded back at General Santos.
After the struggle, the lucky fisherman’s hands bleed from new wounds, sliced by the line into the old scars of previous outings. Some have one enormous wound that takes up the whole surface of their palm. This is no doubt one of the main reasons why the average age on these boats is between 17 and 18 years old. Burned by the sun, wind and salt, worn down by the brutal conditions of life on the water, the oldest fishermen are before long replaced by more able younger men, recruited by the pragmatic managers of the pump boats. A captain earns more than four times what a man crewing does – generally there are six crewmen per boat, and their pay is calculated in terms of their catch. The captain makes an average of 20,000 pesos ($800) per month.
The arrival of the fishing boats in the Celebes of Sarangani Bay is a picturesque spectacle. Generally, there are a dozen or so brightly coloured boats on the water – the captains confer with one another, sharing tips on the spots where the fish are biting. The boats used for fishing here are typical of the Philippines: relatively long trimarans, varying a great deal in length, part of a tradition that goes back a long way.
The Queen Liz is the pride and joy of Captain Rey. Over 47 metres long, Captain Rey’s boat is one of the biggest amongst the fleet that hails from General Santos. The boat’s size enables it to haul aboard much more tuna than smaller boats, a great advantage in the fishing business here, and gives the crew other advantages as well. For example, on the sixth day, we come across a lone, old fisherman who has just hauled in an 85-kilogram yellowfin.
Though overjoyed and beaming with pride, his catch fills his entire boat to capacity, which means that he shall have to return to General Santos prematurely if he wants to keep it. After a few minutes of discussion, however, an arrangement is made between Captain Rey and the old man with the big fish: Rey agrees to haul the fish aboard Queen Liz, put it on ice and hold it for the other man until it is sold, whereupon Rey will take a 25% commission on its selling price. Free to continue fishing in a now empty boat, the old man sails happily away.
This is the essence of the life of the tuna fishermen here: in their unmistakable pump boats, living in harsh conditions, solidarity and conviviality are the bywords along with competition. Eight days have already been spent on the water. It is a never-ending combination of moments of intense excitement interspersed with long periods of waiting, waiting, baking under the heavy tropical sun. Finally, the Queen Liz’s hold is filled to capacity with some 30 tuna, which means the time has come to return to port.
The perishable ice blocks determine the scheduling of the expedition: four days for the journey to the fishing waters, four days’ fishing and finally four days for the return journey to General Santos, where several dozen pump boats are constantly coming and going. While some are unloading their catch, others are filling up with blocks of ice for a new journey on the high seas.
Arriving at dawn, the frenetic activity on the beach at ‘Gen San’ – as the locals call the place – is a brutal contrast to the soundless calm we’ve just experienced on the water. Approximately 400 tuna fish arrive here every morning, a variable number that ultimately determines the per-kilo selling price, which this year runs at about $5. The captain will keep their fish on ice in the holds of their boats until the price offered meets their demands – this can often go on for days. Once a transaction is finalised, the fishermen throw their catch overboard into the water, where a horde of children is waiting to bring them to the stalls along the beach. This is when the “testers” come in – meticulous specialists who fix the final price of each boat’s catch. They use long, thin rods to prod the fish, getting a feel for the texture of its flesh; small samples are cut out of each fish and expertly analysed as to the texture and colour of the meat.
Among the throngs of buyers and sellers, a short, inconspicuous man takes in every detail of the spectacle: Mr Kawai presides, in a way, over the daily ceremony that takes place at General Santos, where he is the principal purchaser. Owner of the “Pescarich” company, every morning this Japanese businessman buys some 200 top-quality tuna, to be used in sushi bars all over Japan.
As he looks on, his worker's skin and guts the fish, removing everything but the most precious pieces. From every superb specimen he buys, Kawai keeps only the choicest parts, a necessity for the ultra-high quality required by the sushi chef. The 75% remaining is never wasted, however, as the Filipinos excel in the art of turning every part of a tuna into a consumable item. The tails and fins are made into a powder used as food in fresh-water fisheries; “bagoong”, a sort of salty paste that the inhabitants of Manilla adore. Everything remaining is eaten, the guts are grilled and served on the spot, even the eyes are turned into a culinary speciality unique to the archipelago.
Just a few steps from the water’s edge, Mr Kawai’s refrigerator trucks are waiting. The cleaned and prepared pieces of tuna are to be trucked to his Pescarich factory, located some 20kms from the beach at General Santos. The factory is the only one of its kind in the Philippines: it employs 350 Filipino workers, specially trained for the task in Japan. The tuna meat arrives here and is lightly smoked, cut into even smaller pieces, frozen – at minus 50°C – in vacuum packs, and then, just a few hours later, shipped abroad, primarily to Japan and the United States. After an eight-day journey by sea, it is distributed directly to supermarket outlets, where it can be found on the shelves in ready-to-eat sushi form.
For Kawai, the General Santos market he discovered is nothing less than a nautical version of the hen that laid the golden egg. The combination of the unspeakably low cost of wages and raw materials and the unquestionable quality of the fish found here has inevitably brought fantastic success to the ever-growing Pescarich company. Orders are ever-more on the rise from both Japan and the United States, and the factory runs at full capacity.
On the beach at Gen San, all transactions are made in cash. Mr Kawai shows up every morning with a small mountain of notes to negotiate his purchases. General Santos has only 300,000 inhabitants, far from the population of the island of Mindanao’s capital, Davao, where 1.9 million Filipinos live. And yet, despite the enormous difference in the sizes of their population, every day both cities do the same amount of business in terms of cash flow. Little money trickles down to the fisherman. But the opportunity to work aboard a pump boat is indeed a rare one, and the pride of having participated in one of the glorious outings is considered healthy compensation for all the setbacks.
Sitting by their respective fishing boats, the crew members wait impatiently for the order to get the boat ready for another sea journey: fill the hold with blocks of ice, load the few simple provisions to be consumed during the 12-day outing, i.e. coffee, rice and the spices to be mixed with the fish caught along the way. The boats then push off and are before long in the vastness and silence of the open sea. As the beach at Gen San disappears in the boat’s wake, the men only talk about one thing: the catch to come. Already on the night out to sea, though still days away from the choice fishing spot, the men dream of the magnificent silvery silhouette of their precious prey.
Copyright © Eric Pasquier
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