Deadly catch

(No.11, Vol.4,Dec 2014 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Photo: Lam Quang Minh

Photo: Duong Van Mai

Photo: Duong Van Mai

They call the men who live in nests that hang on the poles, those that pitch their nets in the middle of the sea, ‘the nest men.’ To earn their living, the nest men have to face many perils, which are, more often than not, deadly.
They spread deep-bottom nets in the sea, 5 miles or more offshore. The nets are pitched from long poles that also support the nest, the minuscule dwelling place for the net watchers. Their job is not only to watch the net, but also to watch the movement of the water to decide whether to pull the net up or lower it. So they have to stay days and nights in the sea. Not just confined to a tiny solitary cell, the nest men’s lives are full of dangers.
‘Don’t talk about accidents in the sea. Especially not to the nest men. They avoid talking [about] risks…’ Mr Nguyen Thanh Tai, a fisherman at Cai Doi Vam estuary (Phu Tan District, Ca Mau Province) told me to avoid making the nest men feel uneasy. Mr Tai said, even when hearing about rogue waves, bad luck or accidents, they wouldn’t tell the nest men. ‘Because it’s too hard to make friends these days. The occupation is too hazardous, so everybody is afraid.’
Mr Ly Hoang Tien, Party Secretary of Dat Mui Commune, Ngoc Hien District, Ca Mau Province, where many earn a living this way, told me, ‘Recently, thanks to improved communication, the number of nest man misfortunes, such as diseases, bad weather…have reduced a lot because they often get backup in time. But no one can predict all the lurking perils. Nest men are the most vulnerable.’
From time to time, news comes about nest men accidents, mostly in the South Western Sea. Not everybody is lucky to be rescued, so the sea fishers feel a chill thinking about being a nest man. ‘On a boat, you can try and moor somewhere. In a nest, anything can happen to you,’ Nguyen Nhat Hien, a 40- year old fisher from Khanh Hai Commune, Tran Van Thoi District, Ca Mau Province, said. He shuddered when we brought up the nest men topic.
‘It’s just to earn a living, man. Somebody would do it if they can make money with it,’ 38-year old nest man Tran Van Hoi from Tra Vinh Province said. He shook his head without us prompting, ‘Hardship to earn food is nothing. Falling is the end…’ Three other nest men burst in to laughter. Mr Hoi said, ‘Just last month, a fishing boat hit a pole. A friend of mine was sleeping in it. He fell while sleeping and drifted away.’
Such stories are not rare, but the phlegmatic way Mr Hoi told it can make anyone shudder. He seems to try hard to be calm and stay ready for anything that may happen at any time.
Too many things can happen to nest men, and whirlwinds that blow down the nests are a perennial scare. There are casualties of this kind almost every year. But the mass takedown in November 2009 in Ngoc Hien District, Ca Mau Province, is still every nest man’s nightmare. A single storm took down 450 pitched nets of the people of Tam Giang, Tan An and Rach Goc communes. 67 nest men fell into the sea. Fortunately, the local people and the border guards mobilized a rescue in time and saved 65 men.
‘You can somehow be ready to face vortexes. But if a boat hits while you are sleeping without being able to react, you die.’ Nest man Huynh Quoc Tuan said. It happens every year in the seas around Ca Mau Province. He said, ‘Recently a cargo ship hit a pitched nest out of Hon Khoai Island. The men in the nest were cast into the sea. Luckily, a fishing boat nearby came to their rescue. But that was pure luck. A friend of mine was not so lucky. He is missing until now…’
According to Mr Nguyen Thanh Tai, the pitched nests owners pay a lot of attention to weather forecast. If bad weather is coming their way, they would send boats to get the nest men ashore. ‘They would be taken ashore when the waves reach level 4, 5. But sometimes there are things that the nest owner can’t foresee. When disaster strikes, the nest man’s chance is 50/50.’
Nest owners don’t normally pay salary to nest men. They share in the reaping. Net men gets one net’s content on every 6 nests. ‘If the fish comes your way, you can earn 3-5 hundred thousand a day. If not, your family would have to borrow money’, nest man Quach Phi said.

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