Fish Tales: Stavros Kontos and Georgios Zoidis

Stavros Kontos and Georgios Zoidis will take part to the Fish Tales –
Granaries of Memory
The Fishermen of Thrace Between Past and Future at Slow Fish 2011

Why and how did you become a fisherman?
S: It is a relationship of love. I love the sea. I grew up in a house by the sea. My whole life has been with the sea. My parents and all my relatives were fishermen, and I followed.

I was born in Germany and I always spent my summer holiday in Greece, in my grandfather’s house in the fishing village of Makri, where the whole family met. During this holiday time, my father usually spends more than 10 hours under the water every day. He is using the harpoon for fishing, a technique which he allowed to evolve as a special type of personal “science”. Since a kid I was impressed by the amount, the diversity and the size of the fish he was bringing back home every day. Same went with my grandfather, my uncles, aunts and cousins. Our summers are all about fishing, then sharing the catch with family and friends. This was for me the first stimulus to start exploring the amazing world of the sea

How long have you been working as a fisherman?
S: Ever since my childhood, I have every day contact with the sea. More than 50 years. At the beginning, while following my father and later working with different fishermen.

G: I am 16 years old and I touched a fishing line for first time at the age of one. At the age of three I caught the first fish from my grandfather’s boat “Calypso”. And with five I received my first harpoon as a birthday present from my father.

How is the sea combined with your personal life?
S: I eat fish and sea-food every day, whether at home, or while meeting life-long friends for a noon-time tsipouro aperitif. Very seldom there is no fish in my plate.

G: The sea has a very special meaning for every member of the Greek Diaspora. It is part of what I think characterizes the character, the very soul of the Greek culture. When I lived in Germany, I was looking forward for the summer to come, so I can enjoy the sea and its pleasures. In the summer, there is hardly one day that I don’t wake up early in the morning to go to the sea. Sometimes for pulling the nets, other times for mougria, a local type of eel that is best caught in the morning. Or just to join my father and go “take a look at the waters”: checking whether the sea is clear enough for harpooning later on the day. This is a crucial step which defines where and when we are going fishing during the day. Since a couple of years, my family moved to Greece and now not only our summers are all about fishing, but even our whole international family life management is adjusted according to our fishing requirements. I guess this is hard for my less fishing-motivated mother and sister. Anyway, for me the sea world is a journey. That’s why I am taking my gear with me in Italy, hoping that I will be able to “take a look at the waters” of Genova.

What is your relation to the sea, the eco-system and fish?
S: Even at the age of 64, I am a winter-swimmer. This allows me to be inside the sea in a daily basis for the biggest part of the year. Having chosen to live like this, the sea has become a special element of my life. I can see it throughout the year. I can sense its seasonality. This approach gave rise to a feeling of common connection with all life –human and not- related to the sea.

G: My connection with the sea is far beyond doing a hobby. It is not only a source of taste, health and pleasure. It is also a source of knowledge, a source of inspiration as well as a source of responsibility. The sea has its own language and you need to learn how to speak it. This is why I wish to be as close as possible to it and, if possible, every day! Fish are intelligent animals, they adopt to human activity and they can change their behavior accordingly – just like humans. From the marine ecosystem we need as much as necessary and as few as possible. That’s why I always return to the sea every fish that is smaller than a certain size. And if there is no big fish on a day, it’s still OK.

Tells us more about your work: what exactly do you do and where?
What is your average day like? What are you fishing techniques, their specificities? How are they sustainable?

S:Every region has its own fish and consequently its own techniques. Same goes for each of the different times in the year: different season, different fish, and different tools. For example, from September to February we fish octopus with the “kioupia”, formerly made of clay pot, nowadays from buckets. February, March and April is time for nets tailored for sepias and squids. Between May and July we have the “garidodichta”, the specially woven scrimp-nets. In the Delta area of the River Evros they fish with “daoulia”, our version of drum fish-traps.

G: Depending on the mood and the weather, we fish using many traditional techniques. Either through different variations of a fishing line, a net, or the more traditional multi-hook lines. But my real asset is fishing with cask and harpoon. This is in my opinion the most ecological and traditionally natural way to catch the fish. It requires more effort, it is more intelligent, but also more fair for the fish, since it is challenging for the human body, and the battle takes place in the fish’s natural environment.

Do you like your work; are you proud of it, maybe even feel passionate about it?
S:I am proud because the Aegean Sea has the tastiest fish in the Mediterranean. And its Thracian part in the north is relatively free of pollution, with lots of different fish species, also known for its mussels and clams. I kept the way our fathers and grandfathers used to live: healthy mind in a healthy body. And, of course, I feel good about that.

G:I am one of the youngest good fishermen in my village. Everybody in Makri talks about my skills. But what makes me really proud is the privilege to know and understand the underwater nature, fish and their behavior which is very diverse.

What do you love the most in your job? What are you best rewards?

S:When I see my nets full of fish. This doesn’t happen every day, so this is a special moment for every fisherman. A good catch brings satisfaction, but also good, fresh and healthy fish to offer and share with my family and my friends.

G:During harpooning you directly converse with the fish. It requires tactics, discipline and concentration. Of course, there are some general rules and tricks that I always follow under the water. But every fish is different and each hunt ends up demanding a unique approach. I am thrilled by the feeling of discovering something new. And over time, as I get more experience, it becomes more and more rewarding. This very own, personal feeling of catching a good piece. “Kalo komati” as I usually exclaim in Greek!

How hard does it get? Do you feel you are sacrificing something?

S:No, because fishing combines a source of food for me and my people, while doing my hobby. I satisfy my personal reflections, I spend my time pleasantly and at the same time I nourish myself in the right way. Especially in spring, summer and autumn, fishing in Alexandroupoli is a unique pleasure. We live with it. In the winter the weather is colder, but a good catch always pays off the extra struggle.

G:Not in the least! I live like any teenager does. But I have my passion. It is sportive, exciting and rewarding. It is physically demanding, but I am young so I can cope very well with it. I am made for it!

How do you think being a fisherman has changed over the years?
S:I think it gets more and more challenging. In the 1960s, you could catch up to fifty kilos fish in the nets, now you catch only five. As the tools and techniques became modernized -especially for large scale fishing operators- the manual effort decreased but the amounts being extracted from the sea increased. This is obvious in our region, too.

G:This is something I always ask my father. To develop the skills for being able to manage time for private life and obligations –in my case my studies- is always an issue. But you need to be passionate about the results and open to the adjustment of living behavior that the human makes for the fish and vice versa.

Do you work with others (family, co-workers, etc.) or do you work alone?

S:I go fishing with my best, childhood friends. All-year-round, except those days with strong south winds that bring large waves. In the summer at least twice a day: at dawn and sunset. But also in the winter there is excellent fish.

G:I’am always harpooning with my father. About 3-4 hours every day in the summer and in weekends during the winter. Just before sunset, the whole family goes out to the sea on our boat for line-fishing and I usually ask some friends of mine to join us.

Are you part of an association or cooperative? If you are, which one and what does it change about your work?
S:I am a hobby fisherman and a sea lover. I am member of the Slow Food Convivium Thrace which allows me to compare how my own knowledge about fish and food in general connects to other, more global issues.

Who do you sell to? Consumers directly, local markets, restaurants, others?
S:I never sell fish. I offer them for free to my friends. Most times we enjoy it together, always fresh, a few hours after they have been caught.

G:I never sell any of the fish I catch. Soon after we come out of the water, we grill or fry it and enjoy it together with my family and friends. Dinners in the garden of our summer house are a big fish-feast almost every evening. My grandmother was an exquisite cook and my aunt now carries on her skills. And we always eat fish that was caught on the same day.

Do you feel that fishermen are an important part of the culture of your community? In what way?

S:Yes! Because Alexandroupoli was founded by fishermen. And mother Sea nourished thousands of families since the very birth of the town. In the old times, Alexandroupoli had at least 15 fishing neighborhoods. They call “goulianous” (the name of a typical local fish) all of us that come from the neighborhood of Apollonias. My neighborhood is the last remaining fishing neighborhood of the town.

G:Like my family, the people of Makri are olive growers and fishermen –professional or amateurs. 150 m from our olive grove, overlooking the Aegean Sea, is the alleged cave of the great Cyclops Polyphemus -son of Poseidon, the Greek god of the Seas- who tried to capture Odysseus on his way back to Ithaca from Troy. This means that the region, together with the neighboring ancient coastal town of Mesimbria has always had a close connection to the sea.

What made you choose sustainable/artisanal fishing over industrial?
S:Because fish is the last healthiest food on the planet. And it is only tasty and healthy when it is fresh. In our region, hundreds of little boats of amateur hobbyist fishers go out in the open sea. This forms the character and identity of the Thracian coast. I grew up like this, and I continue to do so.

G:There is no fishing industry in our village. Every family has a small boat and people go out in the sea every day. For some people, this brings income. For others, like me, it brings exciting times. By the time I discovered about industrial fishing and the problems it causes, I was already in love with artisanal fishing.

What are the main differences in your opinion? In other words, what are your convictions and ethics?
S:Massive fishing by means of sound interference and lamp-fishing from large-scale operators depletes the seas from any aspect. Industrial fishing destroys the small fish and laid eggs. In the hunt for more profit, they devastate the seabed. It is not good, not clean and not fair. But with the fishing line, the cane, the small net of the amateurs, the harpoon… the situation is different. There is more balance and the relationship between man and fish is more equal.

G:In previous years, large fish trawlers were not allowed to fish within two miles off the coast. This limit now is reduced to one mile. They fish at very shallow waters, thus killing all the young fish. This is not only unsustainable, it is also unethical. In industrial fishing everything is only about making money. There is no care for the fish, for the environment, but also for the future. But, I am the future, so for me there is no other choice than being a decent, responsible fisherman that feels enriched by protecting, not by destroying our sea.

How do you feel about the global ocean situation?
S:I feel sad with the pollution that happens in front of our eyes every day. It is not only about laws, measurements and probing instruments. It is mainly about the people that work in the sea. I feel for them.

G:Oceans cover 70% of the Earth’s surface and are home to extraordinarily diverse sealife. However, less than 1% of the world’s seas are protected, despite the threats they face from climate change, over-fishing, pollution, invasive species and oil and gas exploration. Now we even dispose nuclear waste in the sea! As a human, I feel I am part of the problem. But as a young person, I also feel that I am part of the solution.

What do you think should and could be done about it?

S:Legislation needs to be in place and should be enforced. There should be strict and continuous control at the waste that enters the sea. Control mechanisms should be functioning at all times.

G:As a person, I am not directly responsible for the big industrial pollution and over-exploitation of the seas. But I understand that I do have a lot of power, through my own choices. When it comes to consumption of sea food, I try to feel why I eat – not just what I eat. And I take time to reflect about the feelings and memories behind each fish I caught with my own hands. But also for people that are not able to catch fish on their own and have to buy it from the market. The time required for a good fish to develop and the effort of the fishermen has to be highly respected.

What can be the role of fishing and fishermen/women in the preservation of the oceans and their species?

S:Fishermen hold a large part of the responsibility and fishing should always be done in the right time. Fishermen should protect laid eggs, especially during reproduction seasons. They should protect threatened and endangered fish species. But also other sea life, like seals, dolphins and turtles – they are all part of our natural heritage and very inextricably linked to our culture.

G:I think the greatest duty of fishermen, beyond being responsible towards the environment, is to safeguard and preserve their traditional knowledge and techniques. Without this knowledge, fish is merely calories and micro-nutrients. But for me and my community, fish and fishing mean a whole lot more. Of course, young people must be attracted to the sea and enthusiastic to receive and carry on the fishing traditions. It is a matter of education and knowledge that older fishermen must leave behind as seeds in the minds of youth. Because we now know the problems early enough in our lives and we are actively thinking about solutions. And of course, we are able to evolve our own control mechanisms, especially when we are under the water!

Would you see yourself as a guardian of the seas, with a preservation responsibility?
S:Of course, many times. By not allowing myself to dispose waste such as oils and plastic into the water, or by encouraging my colleagues not to do so.

G:I respect my experiences with the sea. I understand that in the future I will be one of the very few people that will know about the traditional fishing techniques of my region. And how to recognize what is really good fish. This is a huge responsibility on its own and this is why I approach the sea and its life earnestly and respectfully. I will always learn from the sea and I will always be driven by an enthusiasm for exploring and explaining its wonders. My generation must put more effort in preserving the Earth’s ecosystems – marine and terrestrial. And we can only protect something if we understand it and if we feel for it.

If yes, what would help fishermen become guardians of the oceans, as well as the ones that collect fish and bring it to land?

S:By presenting the argument that if the sea remains clean, the quantity and mostly the quality of the fish we catch will increase.

G:Everyone should ask himself what type of fisherman he wants to be. Does he want to be part of the problem, or part of the solution? I think we can only be successful guardians of the oceans when we come to the realization that we are not alone. There are thousands of people around the world that share the same responsibility of protecting the marine environments and it is necessary to bring all these people together. That’s why I will join Slow Fish in Genova. Because I want to be part of the solution.

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