Urbanization, tourism, pollution and stricter rules on environmental protection are creating new challenges for the traditional fishing industry in one of China's largest freshwater lakes. Zhu Lixin reports from Hefei.
Chaohu Lake has provided a living for generations of fishermen, but now China's fifth-largest freshwater body, in Hefei, capital of Anhui province, is being deserted as a growing number of fishermen take advantage of a wider range of employment options and turn their backs on the traditional occupation.
Last year, Xu Xiaogang decided to hang up his nets and take a job at a tourism development company in the Baohe district of Hefei. The change has provided the 38-year-old, who worked on the 760 square-kilometer lake for more than two decades, with greater job security in the face of a range of factors that are making it difficult to survive solely by fishing.
Xu was born and raised in Tangxi, a traditional fishing village on the northern shore of the lake, one of the province's most important sources of aquatic produce. His family's connection with the fishing industry dates back to the days of his grandfather.
"Years ago, at the start of the fishing seasons, the local people enjoyed the wonderful sight of hundreds of fishing boats setting off for the deeper water. It's not something you see very often nowadays," Xu said.
The village has 600 households, but only about 100 fishing boats. Residents who don't own boats work for shipowners or as laborers on the dock.
Xu's family was one of the fortunate ones. In 1992, the family replaced its old, small wooden boat with a ferrocement vessel, made from reinforced concrete, at a cost of more than 9,000 yuan ($1,413). "It was quite a lot of money at the time," he said.
In the 1990s, if a family had savings of 10,000 yuan, it was the object of respect, but also envy. Such families were known locally as "10,000 yuan households", and the sum was enough to buy a two-story store in downtown Hefei, Xu said. In his view, his family's financial security was gained through fishing, but the task was much easier then compared with now, he said.
However, in recent years, the family's income has declined in tandem with the lake's aquatic resources, which include silver fish, carp, crabs and shrimps, so Xu and his wife quit in the middle of last year. In 2013 and the preceding years, they earned about 100,000 yuan per year, and although that's on a par with earnings in many other occupations, the effort expended was far greater than in the average job.
During the six annual fishing seasons, each lasting about four weeks, Xu and his wife often worked more than 12 hours a day. The physically demanding nature of the work left them exhausted, and they occasionally found themselves in risky situations.
"You must be able to swim or it can be really dangerous work," Xu said. While most of the local men can swim, only a small number of the women are able to do so, which meant Xu always had to keep an eye on his wife for fear she might fall into the water.
"We often heard about the deaths of fishermen in the neighborhood. Most of them died by drowning," he said. The knowledge only strengthened the couple's resolve to quit the business.