The Quest for Dorado

More than forty years after he had started fishing, and many years after he had stopped eating fish (“I’ve had so much in my life that I no longer like fish”), Ronnie Caruana’s venture hit hard times. We were 100km east of Malta when Ronnie’s eyes became like jewels. Squinting into the emptiness, he grimly skippered the Annunzjata, a 45-foot launch that had cost him US$135,000. “It’s the wind,” he finally muttered. “Dolphin fish recede deep underwater when the sea becomes choppy – the wind has ruined us.”  


Then Ronnie turned the boat around and opened its three engines at full throttle back to Marsaxlokk, Malta’s main fishermen’s port where Ronnie had always lived. “On good days,” he told me, “the boat would be laden by one hundred crates or more.” The good days seemed like a taunting memory now: the vagaries of foraging for dolphin fishes had given the 58-year-old Ronnie, after a lifetime of fishing, the habit of sitting reticently at the helm, staring at the sea, biting his lips, and speaking only when he needed to.   


It’s not what I had expected when I joined the Annunzjata on the fishing expedition. Dolphin fishes are legendary in Malta, and I had expected the fishes to come crashing overboard in haul after haul. For this fish has been the bountiful providence that sustained Malta’s fishermen for hundreds of year, and the Maltese fishermen are the only ones that specialise in its fishing on a large scale. Such fabled abundance have made the species an egalitarian fish, eagerly awaited in its short season: the Maltese consume an average of almost 1kg every year. Dolphin fish catches in fact amount to more than a third of country’s entire fish landings, and for the fishermen that means the peak season in terms of work, income, and verve. It’s this cultural notoriety that had attracted me – and the history of dolphin fishes in Malta, a story of triumph and gratuity, had filled me with romantic expectations.    


It’s a long history; historical records of dolphin fishes go back hundreds of years. For much of that history the Maltese fishermen trapped the fish in surface lines on which hooks were attached. Then the fishermen noticed that these gregarious fishes like to lurk under floating things, and they started putting polystyrene floats along their migratory route, rounding up the fishes that congregate underneath in purse-seine nets. This technique was further enhanced in 1972 when a fisherman noticed dolphin fishes picking at crustaceans that had grown on a floating palm frond. He experimented by tying a fan of palm fronds to his floats; his catches surged, and by the next season all Maltese fishermen had emulated the technique. 


Development of this ingenious and inexpensive method led to a boon in catches, and further served to thicken the enigma that surrounds dolphin fishes. For a long time no one understood why the fishes turn up in between September and November, and then disappear for the rest of year. Speculation about where the fish might go became rife, and one fisherman once claimed to have witnessed the fishes popping out of a submerged rocky boulder – like magic, or like God’s manna. Likewise, to this day no one understands why the fishes like to lurk under floating things. Some maintain that this is so because dolphins, their chief predator, don’t venture into shaded waters. Others think that the shade attracts pilot fishes, which the dolphin fishes prey upon. But why are dolphin fishes additionally attracted to palm fronds? The theory is that they like to eat crustaceans that thrive on palm fronds, but one researcher spotted dolphin fishes rubbing their flanks against the palms and suggested that the fish could be scratching off parasites or something.  


All these speculations, coupled with impressive appearance – dolphin fishes are voluptuous and fast, flashing past like torpedos in open water – has given dolphin fishes a mythological status. And science has been slow in dispelling the myths; for a fish that has been consumed for so long – the species features in 3,500-year-old murals and motifs in the island of Thera in Greece – the surprise is that so little hard knowledge has been accrued. We now know that these voracious eaters are spread widely in the world’s seas. They spawn all year round in the tropics, and in summers they migrate north to the edge of their range. In the Mediterranean they spawn in July, then disperse and grow quickly, devouring flying fishes and mackerels and pilot fishes and their own kind – they are cannibals, especially the larger and more aggressive males. They are in turn preyed upon by swordfishes, yellowfin tunas and dolphins.  


This limited insight is of little practical use to the Maltese fishermen, a beleaguered and romantic lot who remain rooted in a world of conservatism and superstition. Most fishermen fall under the category of “small scale” according to the UN’s international criteria, and half of them continue to operate from the vernacular boats called luzzu – wooden boats of bright bands of colours, ornate baroque designs, and the famous Eyes of Osiris sculpted on their prow. These boats, which wouldn’t look out of place in a museum, are a quintessentially and much-photographed tourist sight. (“A luzzu is like a woman, it needs constant attention,” told me Paul Buttigieg, a fisherman who once saw me taking pictures of his 59-year-old luzzu. “It’s a boat that may be heavy and slow, but it’s sturdy and stable.”) The Eyes of Osiris are supposed to lead the fishermen to good fishing grounds, and the fishermen carry an olive branch on board to ward off evil, curses, and bad luck.  


These traditional fishermen rely not so much on science or technology but on the instincts, skills, and flukes that are normally associated with hunters and gatherers. This can be seen from the fishing of blue fin tuna; other Mediterranean fishery operations use spotter planes to detect shoals of tuna and then throw them fish from the air to keep them in place while large schooners set out to round up hundreds at one go, but the Maltese fishermen still tempt tunas with hooks, trying out their luck, content with returning to port with just one fish, as they have done for hundreds of years. It’s the same with dolphin fishes; the unpredictability of dolphin fishes on migration – as well as their relatively inferior meat, which can never command high prices – dissuades big commercial fishermen from targeting dolphin fish. Yet for the small Maltese fishermen, dolphin fishes are their speciality and their most-valuable fish, and that’s not likely to change any time soon: the fishermen, cocooned in their close-knight communities of inter-married families, are largely insulated from the outside world. Most drop out of school early, and they learn the craft of fishing from their fathers and elders.  


Ronnie, like his father and grandfather, has fished all his life and his children would carry on the family business. His whole family depends on fishing: his three sons work on the Annunzjata while his wife and daughter sell the fish at a fish stall in the town’s market. Every year they affix hundreds of floats to lure the dolphin fish; the floats, set at intervals of about 400 metres and a depth ranging from 400-500 metres, take many weeks of preparation.  


And this season, in 2007, the preparation seemed like futile work. It’s the worse season, or one of the worst, that Ronnie remembers. The catch halfway through the season was on course to beat the previous low record of 234 tons in 2000, and it was all the more devastating coming on top of the boon-season of 2006, when the catch reached a record of 559 tons. But that was a freak year; the long-term statistics reveal that the amounts netted in the 1990s had dropped by about half over the averages for the 1980s. No one understands the reasons for the sharp swings in the statistics; some fishery consultants talk about statistical troughs wherein dolphin fishes inexplicably appear in low numbers every ten years, but most officials talk of the larger trend that shows a steady decline in the numbers of dolphin fishes.  


Now, far out at sea, our lonely boat rocking in an empty sea, the fishermen on the Annunzjata were peering down into the deep-blue sea with ogling yearnings. One of them was juggling the trolling device, a plastic model of a squid coloured red to make it conspicuous, tempting any dolphin fish within range to lurch at the squid and bite the hook, something that would indicate the presence of these gregarious fishes. On the other side of the boat, another fisherman cast a whole dolphin fish attached to a line, which slipped through the water in tune with the forward movement of the boat, the idea being that if other dolphin fishes present saw one of their kind rushing ahead, they would follow, thinking there might be some source of food.  


They did this as we chugged from float to float, and when we finally spotted a couple of dolphin fishes darting through the clear water, a cry of relief went up in the boat and the fishermen sprung into action. The purse-seine net was unrolled from the backside of the deck and the boat made a whole arc so that the net – 150 metres long by 25 metres wide – formed a loop around the float. The bottom of the net was then tightened, and two winches started hoisting the net aboard with speed and precision. Then the fish came crashing on board, thrashing and wriggling, and I could admire their beauty up-close: their large voluptuous heads, their alert eyes with black irises and green corneas, and their luminously green body that is mottled with inky smudges and streaks of turquoise and purple. But death rapidly stole their splendour, the colours draining into dull, metallic blue and black eyes. 


The excitement of that first haul turned to despair as the hours passed and no more fish were encountered. And when we reached the last float, Ronnie turned the boat back to port at full-speed with only fifteen crates of dolphin fish on board, a miserable return for the work of six men and 22 hours at sea. That’s when Ronnie started cursing the wind, but the wind was only partly to blame as on calm days over the previous two months the catches had also been meagre.   


Yet the fishermen didn’t want to admit that the dolphin fishes could be facing decimation; any suggestion to that effect would be countered by talk of good years. “The fishermen believe that there is always a supply of fish to be gathered somewhere at sea,” wrote Finn Wilhelmsen in his anthropological study about Maltese fishermen. “Luck is attributed in part to the will of God, the availability of good fishing grounds, and personal skill.” So out there in the middle of nowhere the Maltese fishermen will remain unending believers, as befits these small-time fishermen whose quaintness have made them a tourist sight.    


© Victor Paul Borg. The above article was published in Open Skies, the inflight magazine of Emirates Airlines. 


Victor Borg showing pictures to farmers.


 Victor has lived in 6 countries in 3 continents; he understands Asian cultures intimately. 

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 Victor's creative nonfiction is varied: essays & memoirs, geography & travel, tourism & environment, columns & features 

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 Victor has explored dozens of countries; he knows China, Southeast Asia, & the Mediterranean very well.

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 Victor has written extensively about food; he has studious and practical knowledge of Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Thai & Mediterranean cuisines.

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