Sunday, 7 July 2013

Not Having a Blast

Apparently in Indonesia it is still carried on. Here in Greece and nearby Turkey the practice was widespread up until about fifty years ago, when it was finally stopped. What am I talking about? Fishing with explosives.

Seems an absolutely crazy idea, but it was hugely popular until the 1960s and was responsible for a considerable number of deaths (not only at sea either, as this story will illustrate), no to mention having a devastating affect on the ocean's delicate ecology and environment too. It's blamed by many experts in all things oceanological for the fact that fish stocks in Aegean waters are much, much lower than they were fifty years ago and beyond. It's not simply down to over-fishing, it's down to the fact that using explosives destroyed vast areas of marine habitat whilst the practice was still being carried on. In Indonesia it's still popular and none other than Sir Richard Branson has issued a statement on his Virgin Blog about the situation out there.

The explosives used here in Greece were many and varied, some using dynamite, others homemade explosives made from potassium permanganate, easily available as a fertiliser, whilst others used old hand grenades from the Second World War. Some fishermen would literally light the fuse on a stick of dynamite and toss it overboard from a small caique. Needless to say, if the thing wasn't thrown far enough, or went off early...

This practice was brought to my attention just yesterday my my friend Lena, an elderly Greek lady living in a village nearby. She was telling me how she'd bumped into a woman she'd not seen for many decades and asked how she'd been. Needless to say, she was interested in how the woman's family had turned out. For many Greeks it's still a huge feather in your cap if one of your children becomes a doctor or a lawyer, so few old women will hold back from extracting information about their long-lost friends' progeny. Here, they go for the jugular.

Lena was shocked, however, to learn what had happened to this old friend's family. Apparently the poor woman had lost her husband and three children all at the same time in a tragic "accident" decades ago which took place at her house. The woman had left the house in the village to go out to the family's "horafia" [fields] to pick some vegetables for the family's evening meal. This would have involved a trek on foot of several hours, taking the woman into some hills from which the village would not even still be visible. She returned to the village after the best part of a day to see a huge plume of smoke rising from the area where her own house was situated. The dreadful truth soon emerged that it was, in fact, her home that was burning. Fire fighters were on the scene and she was taken aside and made to sit down before she could be told what had occurred.

Her husband and all of her children had been inside the house when an explosion had ripped through it, killing two of the children instantly and seriously injuring her husband and the third child. The survivors of the explosion later died in hospital, but not before having helped others to piece together what had happened.

It seems that the woman's husband was a fisherman, one of those who would frequently use explosives to kill schools of fish, usually going out at night. Many such men had lost fingers, hands, arms or even lives when mis-timing their detonations, yet still the practice went on. For this unfortunate family, however, their method of catching their prey led to a tragic end of four lives all at once - and right in their own home.

What had happened? It seems that the seven-year old son had watched his father using a supply of old hand grenades to catch his fish. His father would pull the pin and throw the missile into the water a few yards from his caique. Following the blast, he would row closer to the spot to collect whatever fish had been either killed or stunned and were now floating on the surface. On the day in question, the son had found his father's stash of grenades, pulled the pin and thrown the grenade on to the floor inside the house. Sadly, it was the last prank he would ever play.

The woman explained to my friend Lena that the only silver lining to this tragedy was the fact that it led to a general abandoning of such fishing practices in the area, but what a tragedy it had taken to bring these locals to their senses.

I remember having read about such fishing methods in a book I'd borrowed a few years ago about sponge fishing in Kalymnos. I'd been shocked at the time to learn of such foolhardy men and their ways, who so often sustained terrible injuries in the pursuit of their trade. This tale from my local friend here in Rhodes brought home to me the harsh reality of that bygone life in a most vivid way.

What I was alarmed to learn, having done a little research about the subject, was the fact that in some parts of the earth this fishing method is still employed. Check out that link above to Richard Branson's blog post. There's also a piece of video there too.

I hesitate to use the expression, but this practice is really not about having the kind of blast that we'd all like to experience.


  1. I don't know if it still happens but up until a few years ago it was a method used by salmon poachers in a particular part of Scotland. Salmon farming, and thus the availability of cheap salmon, has probably put an end to the practice.


  2. Oh, when I said salmon poachers I meant thieves, not people cooking salmon!

  3. A tragic tale John. The thought of live grenades in the house!

    In a quarry I used to run we regularly mixed up an explosive mixture using commonly available materials in a wheelbarrow on site. Once mixed we would fill the previously drilled holes and "initiate" using an electrically controlled detonator. Never thought about going fishing with it though.....

    1. Nah, not a good idea Andy. the wheelbarrow would sink...