Another day on the boat, fighting for every catch
The fishermen had been counting how long it would take them to land a female thornback. It turned out to be two hours, 10 minutes and five catches. The females are twice as valuable as the males ― males are not considered as tasty as females, because their skin tends to be thin and dry. The price disparity is so great some fishermen slice the genitals off male catches as fast as possible, hoping to fool buyers into thinking it’s a female.
Lee Sang-su, the ship’s captain, turned away from the water and shouted at his crewmembers. “What are you guys doing? Concentrate.”
The crew must constantly scan the water for passing thornback rays, which glimmer under the waves. An adult ray is strong enough to break free of a line even when caught; fishermen must struggle to pull each one on board.
“Hey, are you afraid you’ll hurt it?” Mr. Lee shouted at crewmembers fighting to drag in a ray. “Hurry up and do it properly.”
For all his shouting, Mr. Lee couldn’t stop smiling. The ray turned out to be a spectacular specimen: Diamond-shaped, 50 centimeters (20 inches) long, weighing more than eight kilograms (17.6 pounds). One good catch can earn them 350,000 won ($363 dollars); in better days a single ray would have netted them up to a million won.
“Whoa,” one of the crewmembers called out, “if this keeps up all year, I might actually be able to get married.
Another fisherman shouted back, “If this keeps up all year, you can have your reception in the restaurant I’ll open.”
It is the way a crew works: Jokes between struggles, hopes hiding between raw knuckles.
A little after 11 a.m. the Hanseong pulled up to a buoy whose red flag snapped in the wind. Mr. Lee checked the global positioning satellite. They were an hour and 20 minutes from the island of Hongdo, off South Jeolla province.
“Let’s get going,” the captain said. Mr. Lee waved his hand and his five crewmembers took their positions. Park Dong-ho and Hwang Dal-cheol, both veteran fishermen, work the line hurler on the left-hand side of the vessel. The hurler has three rollers, which look and act like spinning wheels. Lim Dong-ryul and Lee Sun-ho take their positions on the right-hand side, holding hooks in their hands and ready to man a pulley.
It works this way: the pulley lifts up the buoy and the men install the hurler on the buoy. The hurler has about 20 lines, each nearly 100 meters (109 yards) long and outfitted with multiple hooks. Those 20 lines also branch out every 20 centimeters to present a total of 450 S-shaped hooks. This mass of lines and sharpened steel is then dropped into the water, with the buoy to mark the location.
The crew’s mission for the day was to lift the line it set up last week and check for catches.
The ship’s cook, Park Seok-jin, ran out from the galley with a kettle of hot coffee. The heat and the caffeine did their job: The crew set furiously to work. Mr. Lim and Mr. Park had the honor of lifting on board anything caught in the hooks.
It takes nearly an hour to lift a buoy out of the water. The catches that day were sparse: Two thornbacks, a few fish and enough crab to fill a single box. The cook washed the deck while the crew rested before taking on the next set of lines.
Mr. Lee warmed himself up with a few stretches. After five years of working on the ship, he boasts of being able to make a catfish do a complete flip in the air before it hits the deck. Experience is the only way to keep oneself from getting hurt on a fishing ship; stopping and starting the line hurler takes a lot of skill, and mistakes are measured in blood.
For the next 30 minutes, the crew found nothing. Agitation grew. “Why isn’t there anything?” Mr. Lim asked. Mr. Hwang said nothing and contented himself with drinking cold water.
Not long after noon, two thornbacks ― a male and female ― came up within a minute of each other. It wasn’t too unusual. Sometimes a female is caught and drags up a male trying to mate with it.
An hour later, everything had changed. The captain was flushed with energy. A huge female thornback ray, the size of a sofa cushion, pounded the deck with its wings as if raging against its captors. “Hey, be careful,” Mr. Lee told his catch. “You should have come up sooner. We were so worried.”
Lunch wasn’t served until nearly 3 p.m. Mr. Park served up rice with kimchi stew, stuffed with thick slices of pork, roasted eel and baked shells.
“Hey, don’t throw your garbage away like that!” Mr. Lee yelled at a crewmember who tossed his leftovers overboard. “For Christ’s sake, it gets caught in the propeller.” He turned back to his radio to keep talking with other fishing vessels, trading information and scanning for emergencies. Other captains jumped into the conversation: “Have you caught a lot?” Enough to make a living. “What’s your New Year’s resolution?” Quit drinking.
Seven hours of fishing rewarded the crew with 18 thornbacks, including four females, worth a commission of 3 million won. The Hanseong had hit eight lines scattered around the sea. That morning, they had sold yesterday’s catch of 60 thornbacks to the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperatives, earning a commission of 11 million won.
That’s a decent amount for a day’s work, but can’t compare with the profits the crew made in the winter of 2003, when they could find 16 thornbacks on a single line. Eight months of fishing earned them 500 million won, enough for each crewmember to take home at least 30 million won, a hefty income.
“Work’s tough, but I’ve saved up some money by being frugal and spending most of my time on the boat,” Mr. Lee said. “I want to go ashore and open a restaurant two or three years from now.”
The cook swore he’d get married any day now. Mr. Hwang said he was just trying to pay the bills for his wife in Hongdo and his kids studying in Mokpo.
Mr. Lee used to work in Gwangju, South Jeolla province, where he graduated from college. He started thornback fishing when he inherited the vessel from his father. He is the third generation of fishing captains.
“Once you start your life on a boat, it’s so hard to stop,” he said. “There’s some kind of spell. No matter how tiring the work is and how late you stay out, when it’s time to go out and catch fish again, I feel this energy. I always dream of coming back with a boatful of fish, even when I’m worrying about the weather.”
by Chun Chang-whan