Thursday, 31 March 2011

Oh oh, a shark!

(The shark of Petra; Photo: Eleonora Pouwels)


You can feel totally happy standing knee deep in spring flowers and looking out at a calm blue sea. In trees and bushes birds are singing their spring songs but on such days there’s another sound that makes me very happy: the simmering of the motor of a small fishing boat gliding over the water.

I have never gone fishing in my life, not many women do, and especially here on a Greek island it’s men’s business. Even in winter, if the weather is good, men who have a little boat will go out for whole days on end looking for a catch. Because their husbands spend so much time at sea, lots of women probably curse the fish. Those men without a boat might go to a stretch of coast where they can throw out a line from a rod.

Even though Molyvos has over the years changed into an attractive tourist village, fish soup is still available but the fishing itself has changed too. You can see how from Psarades ke Psaremata, a short black and white film made here in 1960 by the marine biologist Kostas Ananiadis.

I had no idea there were so many ways to catch fish or that sometimes half of the village would take part in communal fishing trips. Like for example during a so called Tsetes lots of boats would go out together, throw the nets, make a line and to chase the fish in they would throw stones in the water, bat it with sticks and stamp their feet on the boats’ wooden floors in what looks like an elegant dance.

For the so called GriGri the boats would leave the harbour for the night, some with powerful lamps in their bows, which the film’s commentary says had the power of 2000 candle watts. The boats with lights would attract the fish, and the others would then quietly steal up and quickly drop a large net over the shoal.

While half of the village was out there for the Grigri, children roamed over the rocks and shallow waters with torches to attract and spear more fish.

In those years fishermen even used dynamite. They would throw bait into the water and when the fish came for it out went the dynamite sticks and then they just had to pick up their haul. The commentator in Psarades ke Psaremata remarks that there was a risk to this kind of practice, as is clear where the man throwing the sticks of dynamite has only one arm.

There were also days when nobody could go out to the sea because of strong northerly winds. Then a large group of fishermen might look for sheltered beaches where they could throw a drag-net into the sea, pull it across the sea bottom and haul it on to the beach. After hours of this kind of hard work the catch might be a mere half basket of fish. In the movie they say: the plate of the fisherman is nine times empty, the tenth time it is filled with plenty of fish.

Even in those times there were already trawlers dragging their vast nets along the sea bottom. Nowadays Greek trawlers are even bigger with crews from Egypt spending days at sea.

Nobody here, except tourists, gets very excited these days when the fishing boats come back into harbour. Except last week, half the village went down to Petra harbour when a boat came with a three-and-a-half metre shark alongside. Small sharks in the nets are quite common around Lesvos, but one of this size is a rare sight. It needed a crane to get it out of the water. According to eyewitness Jan Hoekstra, a Dutch tourist: ‘The animal was filleted on the quay and a refrigerated truck was brought to take it away. Those cutting up the fish found it was pregnant with fifty-six little baby sharks. Someone remarked “Good job they caught her, otherwise it would have been very dangerous for snorkellers and tourists!”. Which suggests to me that some Greeks do not know much about wild animals, because this fish Cetorhinus maximus is on the red list of threatened sea beasts, normally swims only in deep waters and eats small fish and plankton.’

I am no hero regarding sharks and I dare not even look at the Jaws movies, because for sure I won’t dare to go for a swim for several days after. When there is such a catch I immediately wonder where was it made. So with shaking hands I opened my internet search engine and typed in ‘sharks in Greece’ fearing that although I know better, I was going to find they are all over Greece.

Well, in the Mediterranean there are forty-six species of sharks of which sixteen can grow to more than three metres and fifteen of which are said to be dangerous. But do not panic: most sharks in Greece are only seen when they are scooped up by fishermen or end up on the plates of those restaurants that serve a small species called Galeos. In all the Mediterranean, encounters between swimmers and sharks are so rare you would think there were no sharks living there at all. The ones that do are not interested in people and – as Jan Hoekstra mentioned above - only want fish or plankton. You have a bigger chance of being stung by a jellyfish than experiencing a bloody attack by a shark.

The movie Psarades ke Psaremata only shows hauls of small fish. Last year Leon Loïsios finished another documentary (for Greek television channel ERT) to update the original 1960 film as a homage to the old fishermen of Molyvos and their ways of fishing, and to show how the majority of fish is now caught by big trawlers. In the new film you can also see Adonis, the cat & dog man of Eftalou who died last year. He is seen cooking food for his brood of animals and going out in his little boat with a bottomless bucket to spot the fish.

Sadly the sight of Adonis fishing has vanished, but there are still plenty of fishing boats moving up and down the coast. The small one-man boats go out for fish to feed the family so I think that the Grigri and Tsetes ‘dances’ belong only to the past. Most old fishermen don’t tell tales of shark catching, so I bet there were very few.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2011

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