For years a popular pastime among entertainment-hungry city dwellers in Taiwan, this new leisure activity might not exist in its current form were it not for an American program to help solve hunger in the world and the research efforts of a Taiwanese scientist.
A quick checklist for spending the next weekend at your local shrimp fishing establishment: a fishing rod, a can of beer and a handful of good friends.
Of all the hobbies practiced by modern Taiwanese, shrimp fishing is among the most interesting. We all probably have a few friends who love to throw a line for these particularly large crustaceans, but have you ever wondered how it became one of Taiwan’s most beloved sources of weekend entertainment?
It is estimated that shrimp farming has as long a history in Taiwan as milkfish farming; both creatures are usually produced in a polyculture. When fishermen catch milkfish fingerlings in coastal waters, they usually end up also catching larvae of prawns, which are thrown into seawater aquaculture ponds, where they are fed until they are dead. reach the desired size.
In the early days of the aquaculture industry, however, Taiwan lacked the technology to cultivate shrimp larvae. Since all prawns were caught at sea, the yield from saltwater ponds was understandably quite low.
The world’s first artificial prawn propagation (Monodon Penea, also known as Asian tiger prawn) was successfully implemented with research funding from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1968. The organization hired Taiwanese aquaculture expert Liao I-chiu, who had just get his doctorate. from the University of Tokyo in Japan, to carry out relevant research.
Since then, prawn farming has exploded, making Taiwan one of the world’s leading producers in terms of production. Prawns have also become a popular item on moderately priced restaurant menus.
The efforts of Liao and his fellow researchers have been even more important in laying the foundation for the massive increase in Taiwan’s aquaculture production. Liao then headed the Tungkang Marine Laboratory in Pingtung County, where he continued his scientific research, specializing in larviculture, aquaculture, and stock enhancement.
Prior to the 1970s, Taiwan had developed several methods of artificial cultivation of various shrimp larvae. Unlike prawns, these require salt water, which means that these aquaculture farms should normally be close to the sea. Although this restriction does not apply to freshwater aquaculture, prawns from Taiwanese freshwater are not a lucrative commodity due to their generally smaller bodies. As a result, aquaculturists have never really invested in the development of this type of shrimp farming.
Imported freshwater shrimp of the type you can catch in recreational shrimping pools today are much larger and sport a distinctive pair of long blue claws. The official name for these prawns is “giant freshwater prawn” or “giant river prawn” (Macrobrachium rosenbergiilisten), also rendered in Chinese as 泰國蝦, or “Thai prawn”).
Due to their impressive size, jumbo freshwater prawns fetch higher prices in the market. After scientists from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) developed aquaculture techniques for this shrimp species in the 1960s, their farming gradually became a major global industry.
Taiwan received prawn larvae from the FAO in 1970. By the end of the following year, the Tungkang Marine Laboratory had perfected the artificial cultivation of giant freshwater prawns and began promoting the technique to shrimp farmers. local prawns. Eventually, these huge live shrimp would end up in Taiwan’s recreational shrimp fishing ponds, and from there straight to your plate.
However, when freshwater shrimp farming was in its infancy, the crustaceans sold poorly because the prawns, which were more competitive in terms of quality and price, had already taken over the market. It wasn’t until Taiwan’s prawn production finally collapsed in 1987 that the giant freshwater variety became the market champion.
On the other hand, jumbo freshwater prawns did not sell as well as prawns in the beginning because the low-temperature refrigeration technology was not yet well developed. Farmers had to find a way out as their product was not selling well in the domestic or overseas food market.
A new start
Recreational shrimp ponds are widely believed to have first appeared in southern Taiwan in the early 1980s. A local magazine article published in 1983 observed that the people of Pingtung were suddenly to “enthusiastically fish for jumbo freshwater prawns” after local aquaculture farms “opened their prawn ponds to the public for fishing”. The report could have documented the true origin of the indoor shrimp fishing hobby in Taiwan.
The idea of opening entire aquaculture ponds to fishing by the public is not really new. Some fish farmers were already operating recreational fishing establishments in cities as early as 1973.
Still, the entertainment value of fishing for fish versus fishing for shrimp is not necessarily the same. Catching shrimp usually requires less strength, but is usually met with quick success, and pulling a bunch of shells in a short time gives fun-seekers a sense of accomplishment.
Such fast-paced recreational activity fits perfectly with the frenetic pace of city life. More importantly, since these large, hardy shrimp are raised in fresh water, they can be kept in concrete tanks within the city limits.
As a result, shrimp farmers very quickly moved their activities to the city, opening establishments dedicated to shrimp fishing. The activity first became popular in private aquaculture farms on the outskirts of Taipei. Small prawn stalls appeared in night markets before large indoor venues became the norm. At that time, shrimp fishing was all the rage as an affordable hobby.
The indoor prawn fishing craze has also brightened the business prospects of giant freshwater prawn farmers. In the late 1980s, many shrimp fishing grounds sprung up along the Gaoping River in Pingtung County as farmland was converted into aquaculture ponds for freshwater shrimp. Many novice aquaculturists made their fortunes from the freshwater shrimp boom. Nothing is meant to last, however, and such successes have faded as Taiwan’s prawn fishing craze has given way to new, faster entertainment trends.
When I was little, I lived in Sanchong District in New Taipei. Many locals were transplants from other cities and counties in Taiwan, and most were blue-collar workers. Considering the demographics, Sanchong also had far too many shrimp fishing grounds. In the early 1990s, when my parents were still young, they – like many of their generation – visited these places for fun.
Back then, these places didn’t have the large countertop ovens you see today. Instead, we harp the prawns we’ve caught onto skewers, season them with salt, then toss them on a charcoal grill. Arcade games were also a feature of these places, and when we got tired of fishing, we would play there for a while. Come to think of it, it was unpretentious entertainment.
But precisely because it was such a simple hobby, recreational shrimp fishing was able to keep pace with the take-off of the Taiwanese economy, greatly increasing the demand for consumer-oriented amusements. This is how prawn fishing entertained a generation growing up, with countless youngsters sitting around the local pond to kill time and fight boredom.
Eventually, the craze began to wane and the shrimp fishing spots lost their luster to local Taiwanese. In fact, many have openly expressed their disdain for the activity. In one of his books, Taiwanese essayist Lin Ching-hsuan once said that shrimp fishing is “stupid and yields nothing of significance”.
In 1991, when the shrimp fishery was still flourishing, Strange Tales from Taiwan, a production by the Performance Workshop theater group also featured a section that derided the activity as “all about fast fishing, fast killing, fast grilling, fast food”, with instant gratification as the only goal. Thirty years later, humans have plenty of consumerist entertainment choices — most of them probably faster than shrimp fishing — and no one seems to think twice.
I’m actually quite curious if Taiwanese still have specific opinions about the shrimp fishing business (although many foreigners find it quite new). After all, this leisure activity seems to have largely disappeared from public consciousness. The last time people paid attention to shrimp ponds was probably when American basketball star Jeremy Lin visited one during a trip to Taiwan.
Whatever we think of the sport, we can extract interesting historical information from the experience of shrimp fishing in Taiwan. For example, the research on food production (including Taiwan’s aquaculture) that the Rockefeller Foundation sponsored more than half a century ago was intended to address the food shortages facing humanity. The US$75,000 funding the foundation has provided annually has helped establish Taiwan as a shrimp-producing empire.
Later, the importation, cultivation and farming of jumbo freshwater prawns gave rise to a completely unexpected product. These unique creatures, raised in freshwater ponds, have become entertainment as much as food. As shrimp fishing grounds multiplied, a new type of drinking establishment that served heavily seasoned shrimp dishes accompanied by cold beer was born. These places offered a much sought-after means of relaxation and distraction for working Taiwanese.
Who would have thought that an investment program aimed at solving the global food crisis would help alleviate the depression and frustration of the many office workers on the island?
The story sometimes unfolds in mysterious ways.
This essay first appeared on the site [email protected], a sub-channel of CommonWealth Magazine, May 2017. It has been reprinted, with editing and updating, with permission from the publisher.