Antonis Halaris

Interview: Danae Tal

I only know this job,
this is what I do!

We all know that fish is one of the most loved foods and, in fact, this has been so since the old days. What is not so well-known is that the approximately 300 fishermen of Paros have recently dropped to 200, and keep dwindling in number. As a result, in the summer, we here on Paros often eat fish from nets of unknown origin, unless we eat out at tavernas that have their own caique boat. But these are just a handful. A lot has changed in the fishing sector in recent years, and work has become easier, but the number of fishermen is constantly declining and the subsidies they receive are eating up their boats.

Today fishermen have at their disposal technologies that make their life very easier. These are not my words but those of captain Antonis Halaris’s who climbs into “Captain Manolis,” his caique boat, docked at Piso Livadi, not just to go fishing but to venture out to sea in winds of up to force seven. “I was really in danger only once, so much so that I was scared – that was back in July 1992, sailing in force nine in the shallows off Monolithos, Santorini, when I’d just got this boat. I happened to sail a number of times just off Anhydro and Anafi with a thirty or thirty-seven-knot wind, but I wasn’t scared as waters there are deep”.

It takes some seamanship and courage to go fishing in force seven. Yet, Antonis Halaris has been fishing with his father since he was 12 years old and, whichever way you look at it, he is quite sea-savvy. When he was little, he used to go fishing off Santorini, mainly around the islet of Anhydro. He has many visual memories of these places. In our conversation, he remembered his father casting nets and catching wild rabbits on Anhydro, and told me that sometimes they would even find a wild kid goat. Back then they would go out to sea reading the stars at night. Now they check the weather on their screens, they can see the seabed, and everything else technology allows them to. “Now our life has become very easy, but what’s the point, there are no young people willing to come down to the boats.”

“I’ve had my own boat since 1979, the year I did my military service, but I named this boat, “Captain Manolis”, after my father, and I’ve had it since 1992. There used to be three of us aboard the boat, my father, my uncle and me. Later, and up until five or six years ago, I had two Egyptian men on the boat, then one, and then none. Now I’d rather sail on my own.

I fish using nets and longlines depending on the weather and the kind of fish the taverna asks for. The net is mostly for striped red mullet and red mullet, and the longline for fishing in deep water for common pandora, seabream, white seabream and golden grouper. All the fish I catch goes to the taverna except for a few small ones that we give away. I’m lucky enough to have many fishing friends, and I get from them what I can’t get myself, so I keep the taverna fully stocked. I also catch swordfish. We can’t find the humongous fish we used to catch as, due to overfishing, fish don’t have enough time to grow. If we catch a 100-kg fish these days, we say it’s a heaven-sent. It usually weighs as much as 30, 40 or 50 kilos. The sea’s no longer so abundant in quantity.

For the longline, I leave at two or three at night and come back at half past eight in the morning. We cast the net half an hour before dawn and we pull it up when the sun’s about to come out. We leave them for an hour, an hour and a half at the most, lest dolphins or seals fall greedily upon them. There’s this seal, this lady, that comes to visit here, at Piso Livadi, below the restaurants! I, for my part, don’t mind the seal because I sail out into the open sea. But dolphins are very smart –a single dolphin may come to the net, or even a group of ten or fifteen of them. You can kiss your nets goodbye as they rip them apart. The truth is it’s we who have stepped onto their turf… I like watching them on TV, jumping all over and stuff, but if they fall onto the net, it’s a disaster”.

While Antonis is talking to me, he’s baiting a longline without slackening his pace in the least. He’s got a total of 450 hooks and he’s baiting them one by one with pieces of squid that he deftly wraps around the hook: four kilos of squid, cleaned, sliced into straight strips, placed into a plastic container that is balancing its weight on the coiled thick nylon line. The precision of Antonis’s movements is impressive –he’s talking and looking at me while lodging the baited hooks into the slits. He’s showing me the spot on a rocky tip at Piso Livadi behind the port – “up here”, he says, “come the turtles, as big as 100 kilos”.

Antonis doesn’t show off, nor does he say much about himself, his skillful hands that haven’t left the line for a moment speak volumes about him. While we were talking about fishing in bad weather he told me: “I’ve also got the cat on the boat” and the cat lying at his feet wagged its ears smugly sensing we had included it in our conversation. But Antonis doesn’t dwell on that, another grief is brooding inside him: “There’s no young people coming into the boats. Fishermen are leaving the sea. Boats are broken into pieces and then turn into subsidy money.

I only know this job, this is what I’m used to, this is what I do. They tell me to go into fishing tourism, but I’m better off without the tourists. And yet, many boatsmen at Naoussa, and one or two at Aliki, have switched. Better that than breaking them up, of course… Because this is a crime that keeps going on for years now. At the crack of dawn, when the sun rises and the horizon gets all red –that’s the moment of beauty. If you don’t like the sea, you don’t do it. That’s why youngsters don’t go into the boats. In our trade, there’s no Sunday, no holiday, no nothing. If you sit idle for five days in a row because it’s rough, and then it gets calm for a single day, you’ll go fishing even on a Good Friday.”

Finally, I ask him about the fish farms that have in their own right affected the fishing trade: “Here, if we don’t fish, we don’t eat fish. We’re saved by the wind –fish farms can’t be set up in such a wind.”