Sunday, 25 September 2011

A Box full of Lobsters

It’s a late September Sunday, about seven a.m. In summer we'd be out earlier: the fishermen go out when the sun’s coming up, as that’s when there are fish. 

I say hello to Nikos and meet his brother Stelios; I’ve been invited by the third fisherman, Stelios L., who’s been fishing with them for more than ten summers. The three change into orange overalls and rubber boots. A teenager, young Alexandros (‘the great’), sits at the back in shorts and t-shirt to steer the boat. I’m given a seat in the middle where I can see everything.

NB: Most of the photos to go with this blogpost won't load this morning, so please view them on my Facebook page!!/media/set/?set=a.10150385941285803.403889.646565802&type=1

The wooden boat heads first to the headland to the south of Livadia bay. It’s a nice calm morning, cool, a few wisps of cloud on the hilltops. On this side, the water is still a grey. It’s one of the last weeks before they change the boat over to a different kind of nets, when the season opens for trata.

We arrive at the first spot. One of the guys hooks the float out of the water using a wooden pole, reels in the rope, then a motor winches the net over a series of three wheels that keep it coming continuously. Nikos leans over the side, watching to see what’s coming in.
‘Good skaros, take it,’ he shouts to his brother who pulls the net off the wheels, winding it into a heap and at the same time pulling out the fish and tossing them into a bucket of sea water. Stelios L. winds the empty nets into a pile at the back of the boat and helps pulling out the fish when needed. Nikos shouts instructions to Alexandros on the rudder to keep the boat in the right place. ‘Mpros!’ Forward. ‘Anichta!’ Away from land. ‘Isia!’ Straight.
The first fish to come over the side include some spiky orange skorpio (scorpion fish), and some yermano (Germans – they came to the area during the Second World War) with poisonous spines that can give a very nasty sting. All these Stelios extracts from the nets with his bare hands. For a while there’s nothing, and then about six good-sized fish all at once. And then a karavitha, like a reddish-brown lobster with no pincers or feelers but a big, powerful tail that curls and snaps back. And a sinagritha, two kilos at least, the ‘king of fish’, blue-ish silver with pink around the mouth. All this in the first half hour: a good start. When eventually there’s nothing more coming up on the nets but weeds, it’s time to move swiftly on. Feegeh! Go! The lobster was a good find. Lobster is worth up to forty euros a kilo.
Crossing the bay to the north side allows a brief break for a cigarette and fresh coffees. A sudden panic: no more coffees! The great coffee crisis ensues and searches are conducted for the disposable plastic frappe cups. A brief despondent lull, knowing there’s no more coffee this morning.

The island looks different from the sea; the sun is coming up now over the side of the mountain and brightening all the colours. We skirt the shore where the cliffs and the coves are a rich red, reflecting in the still water. We pass Donkey Island, then stop at the next net and start pulling it up. Tiny fish have to be extricated and thrown back, but soon the fish bucket starts filling up. There’s a flurry of excitement when a couple of strange-looking fish appear, blue-green spots on top, bright white belly: lagokefalos. Poisonous.
The belly of one is puffed out, bloated, and Nikos stabs it in the head with a knife before throwing it overboard. Clearly you have to know your fish; you can’t just catch and eat anything.
Then someone finds a seahorse in the net, an alogaki tis thalassas, or ippocampos. They put it in my hand. ‘Take this home. It’s beautiful for the house!’ It’s beautiful, of course, a tiny perfect grey dragon-like creature. But it’s alive, and it doesn’t want to die. Its mouth forms an ‘o’ as it gasps for air and it flexes its body and curls its tail in and out. I keep it in my hand and try to ignore it while we celebrate the arrival of a nice catch of reddish-white barbounia, red mullet, a good fish to sell.
‘To ena alogo, eineh mavro… ’ sings Stelios at the front of the boat, a popular old song about a white horse and a black.
It’s horrible watching a seahorse die. It is taking forever. It doesn’t want to die, its little body stretching out in what looks like agony. I look at the sad thing in my hand, wrapping its tail around my pen (figurative blood on my hands), and Stelios assures me, ‘There are lots of them.’ And it hits me of course that all the fish we’re catching are meeting the same fate, so why do I feel this way about the damn seahorse?

The first lot of fish are moved from the bucket to a box, sluiced down with fresh sea water and covered with wet hessian in the shade. We continue past the pretty beach of Lethra, accessible on foot, the valley filled with green pines, another little island and mineral-blue rocks that drop sheer into the sea until we reach turquoise water, where on a slither of pale beach a couple of goats are coming down the rocks to drink. It’s amazingly beautiful.
‘How can the goats here drink salt water?’ I ask.
‘I don’t know. There’s nothing else in the summer. It’s evolution!’ says Stelios L. (He’s posing a little at the side of the boat, one arm casually hanging off the roof, showing off his muscles: forget firemen’s calendars, girls, how about a fishermen’s calendar?)
We stop, and the routine begins again, Nikos directing, the other guys gathering the net as it comes in again, unsnagging knots, pulling off rocks and plants, sometimes singing a little to pass the time. There are no fish for a while, and they all look a little edgy. Then suddenly, we know why. Fokia. A seal.
The big grey seal flips over in the sea nearby, does a taunting turn or two – or maybe it’s just looking to see what’s going on – and then disappears again.
‘This is why we take no fish here.’ The seals eat the fish from the nets. They actually eat through the nets to get at the fish – the guys show me the holes. It’s an easy feast. The seal surfaces again on the other side of the boat.
‘That was a small one,’ says Nikos. ‘They get bigger.’ No wonder if they eat that many fish. The net here is empty, alas. Quietly, curses probably kept under breath because of my presence, we take off in a more sombre mood south again but further out. The jagged rocks of the islands silhouetted black and grey look like Thailand. Two cormorants stand on some low rocks. The seal comes up again, eating a fish. They’re not afraid: it’s illegal to harm them. Stelios adds the few fish from that net to the boxes and covers them in ice.
Next time, we’re fishing a little deeper. The winch winds up rope for a while before the net. And soon up over the side is a lobster, an astrako this time with pincers and feelers, purple with orange markings. There’s also a cuttlefish, soupia. And because we’re fishing deep, there are lots of rocks too, or clumps of compacted earth and weeds that get caught in the nets and have to be stamped out flamenco-style, leaving a big mess in the boat. But on the upside, there are lots of fish coming up, keeping Stelios busy extricating fins and gills, while Nikos struggles to untangle the lobster.
It’s hard working deeper, stamping out all the chunks of dirt. Winding all those nets into piles, standing up for hours leaning over to pull out the fish, it’s got to be tiring – when I think of how tired I get after an hour’s gardening. They wind the nets twice over a wooden pole to clean out all the dirt, and then sweep and sluice the deck. All the rope and net and spiny fish and salt water every day – it must take a while to toughen your hands up for that.
But the result is several big lobsters which must be worth a fair bit. Nikos places them carefully under the wet hessian sack – ‘ipno!’, sleep – although when another one goes in they all wake up and start thwacking their tails powerfully.
‘That was a good net.’ Seals don’t eat lobsters, thankfully.
When they’re getting good fish, no-one complains about the work as it’s good money. But it’s the same work whatever comes in. And you never know exactly what will come in. The currents can move the nets from where you place them: in summer they didn’t see any lobsters as the currents move the nets. Occasionally a fish caught in the net has been eaten away by something else before the fishermen get to it, and they still have to extricate the remains and throw it overboard. With all that winding in and cleaning and sorting for each net – and winding them out again at night – no wonder they don’t like it when the catch gets stolen, and no wonder there’s excitement at a good catch.
Even though the deck has been cleaned to ship shape, we’re preparing to pull in another deep net again. This one’s coming from 140 metres, outside the mouth of Livadia harbour in view of the town. I’d forgotten we were so close. This net brings in a smerna, a moray eel, glistening brown and yellow. Nikos give it a swift blow to the head with his boot to kill it quickly, as if it smells blood or food (the other fish) it can be dangerous. We get a large scorpion fish and a starfish, among mounds of dirt. And then the small sharks or dog fish, galeos, start to come in, one after another, five or six of them. They do look like miniature sharks, with very smooth, silky, dark grey skin and extraordinary blue glassy marbles for eyes. I notice Stelios L. opening a shell – a scallop shell. He hands me a fresh scallop to eat.
As it gets closer to lunchtime, the sun gets hotter overhead and since the boat is continually moving around, they need to make sure the fish in the middle of the boat stay cool and wet. Those overalls and rubber boots also seems a little warm at this time – imagine what it was like in July and August.
As we start to chug back towards Livadia, Nikos gets a call.
‘Yes? I’ve got lobster – d’you want a lobster? And dogfish. I’m coming.’
Nikos has been doing this since he was twelve – thirty years – and he works continuously as a fisherman, summer and winter. In the summer season, he sells direct to the restaurants in Livadia: Armenon, Michalis, Naftilos. In winter, when restaurants in Tilos are closed, the catch goes to Rhodes and to Athens. Of course, things have changed over the years and there aren’t as many fish. The water has warmed up too, so there are more fish from Africa like yermanos and the poisonous lagokefalos and no more mackerel.
It seems like a good day’s work to me: a few boxes of fish large and small, a box of lobsters, a few cuttlefish, a box of sharks. (Not to mention the sea horse and starfish.) I ask whether it was a good day.
‘Not a bad day – fine,’ says Niko, shrugging. ‘Not as good as yesterday – not as many skorpio or barbouni.’
‘The seal ate them all!’ says Stelios L.
I wonder how much of the takings go to fuel and maintenance of equipment?
‘The takings are divided into five,’ says Stelios L. ‘Three parts for the fisherman, and two parts for the boat.’
The cleaning work continues as we head back, and there’s a little more singing while the hard work of winding and sorting progresses. I’ve never seen three Greek men smoke so few cigarettes: there’s no time.
There are so many details I’d never have thought about. I’d somehow always imagined fish would fall effortlessly out of nets – but not with this kind of fishing. I’d never have imagined so much cleaning was involved the clumps of sea-earth that have to be smashed and then shaken out of the nets, swept up and washed out.
‘We finish quickly if we fish shallow water. When we go deep, we get lots of dirt.’
I have also learned there are few sexier things than watching a man pull a shark (OK, a very small shark) out of a net. And that you can eat good fresh fish and lobster in Tilos and watching it being caught makes me want to eat more.
Just when you think it’s over, back in harbour, there is more work to do: Stelios L. has to clean and wind nets into neat piles ready for the evening, while Nikos sells a few lots of fish and fillets the dogfish. I think of doing all this work day in, day out. It's one thirty, over six hours since we went out.
‘Got any skarous?’
‘No big ones. I can give you two kilos of these for 15 euros…’
A man comes down to buy and leaves followed by a posse of cats.

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