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Patrolling the Weirs, Seeking for Weirs

The history of the stone fish weirs in Penghu is more than 300 years. The ancestors, making good use of the tide and fish migration, built various stone fish weirs in the tidal zone for their fish-catching activities. Among these stone fish weirs, the double-pool stone fish weirs are globally known for their twin-heart shape. Each stone fish weir was built by ancestors' wisdom, blood and sweat. Whether overlooking from high above to admire their romantic appearance, or stepping into the stone weirs to carefully examine how ancestors piled the stones, either way perfectly shows that stone fish weirs in Penghu are not merely the heritage of human fishing history, but also "living fossils" of the fishing culture in Taiwan. 

In the 16th century, Portuguese called Penghu Prescadores, meaning "islands of fishermen", from which we can see that Penghu at that time has already had rich fishing resources. Nowadays, Penghu is one of the few districts in the world that still preserve the culture and craft of stone fish weirs. "Penghu Stone Fish Weir" is also listed as one of the potential world heritage sites in Taiwan by the Ministry of Culture, Executive Yuan. With changing technologies and environment, however, the economic benefits deriving from the stone fish weirs tend to be in decline. These weirs nowadays are developed for cultural, ecological and tourism purposes instead. Moreover, we should pay more attention to the protection of these precious cultural resources. If you have the opportunity to see those weirs, please do not move any stones belonging to parts of the weirs or destroy the original view of weirs.

Fish weirs VS. stone fish weirs

Fish weir (or tidal weir) is an ancient fishing technique in the world. According to the existing historical records, fish weirs may date back to the Stone Age. Similar fish-catching activities can be found in transitional areas between fresh and tidal waters. Materials used to build fish weir may vary in different regions and thereby forms different shapes. The function is however the same: intercept the water flow and trap fish. The tidal weirs are also known as weirs in northwest America, or as fish traps, tidal traps, kraals, guides, leads, pounds, impoundments, fish fences, fish ponds etc. in other areas. The fish weirs are documented in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, China, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia, India, Sri Lanka, Pacific islands, Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Africa and even North America and Canada. Based on the cross-national distribution of fish weirs, this type of primitive fishing technique and structure is not only an evidence of true wisdom in the development of human civilization, but also a precious cultural heritage and cultural landscape.

Stone fish weir, a special type of fish weirs

Fish weirs of the world were usually built with local materials, which can be generally divided into three categories: wood, stones or artificial materials. Stone fish weir, a special type of fish weirs, is named for it is made of stones or coral reefs. Materials are slightly trimmed based on the original shape, or directly used to build stone fish weirs, without using any artificial materials for adhesion. Stone fish weirs, also known as "ishigaki (stone wall)" or "ishihibi (stone tidal weir)" in Japan, and "석방렴 (stone weir)" in ancient Korea, are usually built in estuaries or tidal zones. In order to withstand stormy waves and tidal changes, stone fish weirs in appearance are 1.5- to 2-meter tall stone walls of arc shape and the end part of weirs is in spiral. Relatively complicated stone fish weirs were built with one or even two pools to trap fish. Later on, structures such as gate, stair , tooth , fish well , and narrow area etc. are developed to fulfill fishing demands. Stone fish weirs can be considered as a long standing and widely distributed technique. There might be differences in forms, but not in functions and operations.

Figure 1. Illustration of stone fish weir– an example of single-pool stone fish weir in Penghu

Requisite conditions for stone fish weir

Stone fish weir is one of the characteristics of coral fishery. Making use of daily fishing experience and wisdom about the ocean, our ancestors gathered full labor power to build various stone fish weirs for sea farming. Stone materials used for fish weirs basically include basalt, granite, gravel, pebbles, and coral reefs etc. These heavy materials are mostly local resources and some of them might be transported from the neighboring districts.
About 50 to 100 years ago, stone fish weirs were a common fishing technique in Penghu. Local fishermen had a thorough understanding about the ocean ecosystem in costal areas of Penghu. Before they started to build a stone fish weir, they had to pay attention to and tried to understand various questions, such as how tides come in? how tides go away? what are the habitual behavior of fish? what are the wind directions in certain times? what kinds of fish they will have in different seasons? or what kinds of materials are suitable for different fish species for living? etc. After they built stone dikes by using local resources, they had to learn from natural destruction and further consider how to improve these stone dikes. The end results were seemingly similar stone fish weirs of different features and appropriate functions. In addition to stone materials, some plant materials were also used as the framework and other smaller stones were then filled in between, in an attempt to prevent stone fish weirs from collapsing.

Few requisite conditions for building stone fish weirs are summarized as following:

  1. Materials for construction: Stone materials (e.g., basalt, gravel and pebbles) or coral reefs etc. as the materials for stone fish weirs.
  2. Sufficient tidal range: The tidal range has to be sufficient, so that shoals of fish will come into stone fish weirs in rising tides and then be trapped in ebb tides.
  3. Strong waves: Shoals of fish may take stone fish weir as refuge in bad weather or when having strong waves.
  4. Extensive coral reef: As coral reefs are usually found in shallow waters, fish may be kept in the tidal zone and afterwards trapped in the stone fish weir. Moreover, coral reefs provide a solid foundation, on which stone fish weirs can be built. The foundation will not be destroyed due to flowing tides or loss of sand.
  5. Migratory fishes: Migratory fishes may enter tidal zones for smaller fishes or algae and thereby be trapped in stone fish weirs. A huge amount of migratory fishes is one of important reasons for stone fish weirs, for it offers enough economic temptation.
  6. Enough labor power: Due to lack of mechanical power in early times, all stone materials for stone fish weirs had to be transported by human labor and placed in appropriate locations according to the tides. The establishment of one stone fish weir may last several or even more than ten years. Enough labor power was therefore very important at that time.
  7. Management system: As stone fish weirs were the results of the collective efforts and the harvest was highly influenced by tidal and seasonal changes, profit distribution and repair became an arbitrary division of labor, which was necessary for a sustainable operation of stone fish weirs.

Origin of stone fish weirs in Penghu

The ancient fishing equipment, according to Book of Poetry, included wang (net), diao (fishing/fishhook), gu (snare), yu (drag-net made of fine mesh), shan (basket for catching fish), gou (a basket trap for fish), liu (fishing trap), zhao (basket for catching fish), qian (diving), liang (weir) etc. In the Han Dynasty, one kind of fishing gear, set nets made of bamboos, appeared. In the Eastern Jin, fishermen at Songjiag invented a new fishing method called "lu". They set bamboo fences alongside the beach, trying to trap fish via tidal differences. This method was also known as "hu (weir)" in Shanghai. In the Tan Dynasty, "hu" was a major fishing method in the Yangtze River downstream. Following the development of weirs, they had different names depending on their functions. For example, "xie-duan" referred to bamboo weirs for catching crabs, whereas "yu-duan" referred to bamboo weirs for catching fish. In early Ming Dynasty, the imperial government once gave orders that "No single sail is allowed to go to the sea". In the 30th year of Jiajing's reign, the peril of Japanese pirates arose, which led to a stricter prohibition on entering or leaving by sea. In the Ming and Qing Dynasties, the Great Clearance/Great Evacuation was executed and surrounding islands were listed as forbidden areas: "The whole island must be cleared, for all houses will be torn down", and "violators will be sentenced to death." Due to this Great Clearance, the literature or information about when the first stone fish weir appeared in Penghu might be destroyed and therefore no longer available.

The earliest records about the stone fish weirs in Penghu appeared in the 35th years of Kangxi's reign in the Qing Dynasty (1696 A.D.). In the Taiwan Prefecture Gazetteer about taxation edited by Gao Gong-Qian, it said "In Penghu..., there are two big weirs and twenty small weirs, ...[which] shall be taxed." In the 6th year of Yongzheng's reign (1728 A.D.), the number of small weirs, based on the survey, increased to 34. In the 8th year of Yongzheng's reign (1730 A.D.), another "half-weir" was added (the concept of "half-weir" was not clarified in the document). In the 11th year of Yongzheng's reign, the number of small weirs increased by 18. In the 6th year of Qianglong's reign (1741 A.D.), it was documented that there were two big weirs and 72 and a half small weirs in Penghu. In the 29th year of Qianglong's reign (1764 A.D.), "two big weirs and 73 and a half small weirs in Penghu" was mentioned in A Brief Record of Penghu. In the 19th year of Guangxu's reign, "two big weirs and 76 and a half small weirs in Penghu" was mentioned in Penghu Subprefecture Record edited by Lin Hao. Moreover, based on Penghu Subprefecture Record about culture, it was documented that "Weirs are built in enclosure in tidal zones. Fishes hide themselves inside the weirs at high tide and people can catch them at night tide. Weir builders shall build one- or two-meter high stone walls along the high-water mark and leave a gap as the gate. On both sides of the gate erected two wooden pillars, on which a small net is hung to block the gate. When the tide rises, the weir walls are submerged. Fishes and clams will then go into weirs. When the tide ebbs, the tidewater outflows through the gate, whereas fishes and clams are trapped/blocked by the net. The wider weirs are called Da-hu and smaller ones are called Xiao-hu." As building weirs is a time-consuming and labor-intensive process, stone fish weirs in Penghu, based on the above documents, should have appeared in 1696 A.D. and have more than 300 years of history.

Forms of stone fish weir in Penghu

Stone fish weirs in Penghu, due to the differences in terrain, direction and tidal current, are different in forms. Despite of this, they can be divided into three categories, namely arc, single pool and double pool. The earliest and basic form of stone fish weirs was arc-shaped walls. Stone fish weirs then had a structure of direction and afterwards an enclosed pool, the purpose of which is to induce fish into arc closure (i.e., pool) and then trap them in the stone fish weirs. The development of forms from simple to complex is rather a universal phenomenon among stone fish weirs worldwide.

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Table 3-1. Forms of stone fish weir in Penghu
  1. "Arc stone fish weir": Also called "Qian-ping-hu (shallow weir)" in ancient times, which referred to those stone fish weirs without pool(s). Because of its arc-shape, it is also called "Pen-chi-hu (dustpan weir)" or "Yuan-lung-tsai-chuan (rounded basket)". Arc stone fish weirs were usually built in shallow waters. As they are usually close to the high-water mark, people in Jibei also call them "Kao-hu (high weirs)".
  2. "Single-pool stone fish weir": Refers to stone fish weirs that have only one pool. As it is usually built in relatively deeper waters, people also call it "Shen-hu (deep weir)".
  3. "Double-pool stone fish weir": Refers to stone fish weirs that have two pools, also called "Shuang-lien-hu (double-connection weir)". The double-pool design of stone fish weirs in Jibei and Qimei is different from each other. Some double pools have one-front-one-rear design and some have one-left-one-right design.


Distribution of stone fish weirs in Penghu

At the time of Taiwan under Japanese rule, it was documented that the Penghu Islands consisted of 64 small islands and islets. According to the latest survey in 2004, there are 90 small islands and islet in total. The longest water area reaches 60 kilometers and the widest water area reaches 40 kilometers. The water depth tends to be shallow in the north and deep in the south. In other words, islands in the northern part tend to have wider intertidal zones and therefore more stone fish weirs in number. Taking five districts in Penghu for example, the Baisha Township in the north has the greatest number of stone fish weirs. The Jibei Island, in particular, has been called "Hometown of Stone Fish Weir" since early times. Based on the survey in 2011, there are more than 100 stone fish weirs around the whole island, which has the greatest number. The second is Xiyu Township in the west and next are Huxi Township in the east and Magong Township in central Penghu. Those islands in southern Penghu have the least number of stone fish weirs.

Among those stone fish weirs, three weirs around the Mudou islet are the northernmost, whereas the twin-heart stone weir near the Qimei islet is the southernmost. As there is a cliff nearby perfect for gazing into the twin-heart stone weir, this weir is therefore granted as "the prettiest cultural landscape of the world". The twin-heart stone weir not only becomes the tourism image of Penghu, but also is attached with the symbol of romantic loves.

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