2019 / November
Lynn Su /photos courtesy of Wang Ming-hsiang /tr. by Phil Newell
While many people make a living from the sea, there are few who speak out on its behalf. Many people know how to exploit the sea, but don’t understand the problems of overfishing and marine trash that are making the once beautiful oceans a scene of devastation. Wang Ming-hsiang loves the sea with a passion. He is both fisherman and diving instructor, but also a great spokesperson for the sea. He advocates for marine conservation without counting the cost to himself, giving as selflessly as the ocean that nurtured him growing up.
We previously saw Wang Ming-hsiang one weekend at the National Museum of Marine Science and Technology in Keelung. The sky was overcast and it was drizzling, but this did not dampen the museum visitors’ interest, as Wang led a large group of adults and children in an activity in a partly covered outdoor space. They cut bushy makino bamboo into suitable lengths, and bound the pieces into fanlike bundles using special knots, forming them into the shape of gorgonian corals to create “birthing suites” for bigfin reef squid (Sepioteuthis lessoniana).
Museum staff introduced Wang to the crowd as “Coach Piston” and “the grandfather of bigfin reef squid.” Although Wang is still in his early 50s, thanks to his dedicated efforts toward the recovery of bigfin reef squid populations over the past 12 years, this squid with a lifespan of less than a year now has an undisturbed habitat in the seas off northeastern Taiwan where it can live and reproduce free from human interference.
Having gone from being called “the father of bigfin reef squid” to their “elder uncle” and then their “grandfather,” Wang Ming-hsiang says that by now he should be called the squids’ “great-grandfather.”
A man who loves the sea
When Wang talks about the sea, his eyes light up and his voice becomes passionate. Born and raised in Keelung, he grew up gazing out at fishing boats on the ocean horizon. And he never heeded his elders’ admonitions to “stay away from the seashore, it’s dangerous.”
“Whenever I was feeling down, all I had to do was come down to the shore and I would feel especially happy.” When he was grown up, he got his own boat, and progressed from small boats to large, owning five at one time at his peak. He also acquired a professional scuba diving license. Right now, his main areas of work are leading tourists on diving and fishing trips, and assisting with marine ecological surveys.
Wang, who could rightfully be called a middle-aged “slash person,” has yet another important identity: disaster responder. He has been involved in rescue and disaster response work for over 20 years, and has been at many scenes of destruction where life and death hang in the balance. He has been a first responder for Typhoon Xangsane, Typhoon Morakot, and two crashes of TransAsia Airways flights.
Wang also goes by the nickname “Piston.” This is because first responders have a taboo against calling their brethren directly by their names at disaster sites. Wang’s family operates a motorcycle shop that customizes bikes, so he chose the name of an engine part as his moniker, and it has followed him to the present day.
Because he has witnessed a great deal of death and understands that life is uncertain, Wang’s worldview is particularly open-minded and generous. He has so far spent over NT$1 million on marine conservation work, but he doesn’t mind: “I do whatever I can. When I’m doing it I don’t think about how much money I’m spending. What matters is how much I can contribute to society and the ocean while I’m alive,” he says in his plainspoken way.
Awakening environmental consciousness
Most people who made their living from the sea in the past remember the notion that “the sea is our refrigerator.” If people wanted some extra food on a given night, they would just go down to the sea and catch fish or gather shellfish, and Wang Ming-hsiang was no exception. But as the environment has deteriorated, the sea that once offered such rich resources is no longer the same.
Twelve years ago, Wang was asked by fishermen to assist another diving instructor, Guo Daoren, in placing bamboo “sea fan corals” in the sea around the Badouzi area of Keelung. Due to habitat degradation, bigfin reef squid could only spawn among sea trash and discarded fishing nets. The bamboo fans created “five-star birthing suites” for the squid, greatly enhancing the chances of their eggs hatching.
Thereafter Wang continued steadfastly with this work. Each year during the bigfin reef squid’s spawning season from April to October, he devotes himself to his task without fail, regardless of whether there is any outside financial backing, or whether other people join in, or even notice him.
Recreating the squids’ spawning habitat was only the first step in Wang’s conservation efforts. One day Wang discovered that the places he had placed the bamboo fans had become paradises for anglers. “Even a novice can surely catch squid here.” As word of this bounty got around, although the numbers of bigfin reef squid soared, it was still rare to find a large one.
For this reason, Wang did his best to convince anglers not to fish in these places, while also calling on the government to quickly pass legislation to ban the catch and sale of bigfin reef squid smaller than 15 centimeters. Wang thought to himself: “There is legislation to protect crabs, and bigfin reef squid are scarcer than crabs, so why should it be impossible?” But for a long time he couldn’t get a response from the government.
Yet Wang did not give up, but ultimately changed his strategy, proposing instead that the coastal waters should be designated a protected area, in hopes of giving the bigfin reef squid an environment where they can mature without interference. This idea won the support of scholars and government officials, and in 2016 the creation of the “Wanghaixiang Chaojing Bay Resource Conservation Area” was announced, a first in the Keelung area.
Besides promoting the establishment of the conservation area, Wang also mobilized his diving friends to clear away discarded fishing nets from the seafloor in inshore waters. They removed these notorious “walls of death” so that fish of all sizes, as well as shrimp and crabs, would no longer be caught up in these nets and die.
Some fishermen derided Wang’s efforts, saying things like, “If no-one cracks down on fishermen who use drift gill nets, what’s the point of designating some so-called conservation area?” In the face of such remarks, the straightforward Wang took a boat out to sea to work with the coastguard to catch fishing boats illegally using drift gill nets. In addition to calling for strict enforcement and heavy fines as a deterrent, Wang urged the Keelung City Government to establish a registration system for drift gill nets, to encourage each and every fishing boat to manage its fishing gear responsibly. These measures finally persuaded many law-abiding fishermen who had long been angry about drift gill net fishing but hadn’t dared to speak out that Wang was “playing for real,” and they gave him their full support.
Wang’s ultimate vision is to expand the conservation area to include all of Fanzai’ao Bay (aka Wanghaixiang Bay). Although fishermen would no longer be able to fish in this area, they could follow the example of Fangyuan Township in Changhua County, where the local tradition of harvesting oysters from the sea by oxcart has become a resource for developing tourism. For example, they could make a living by using their fishing boats to take tourists out for marine activities.
Wang Ming-hsiang, who loves the sea so deeply, hopes to get more people to understand that the sea’s beauty deserves to be protected by us all.