Fishing on Lake Razelm

Ioana Calinescu
That was the custom a hundred years ago. Nowadays, in the communities of Lipovan fishermen from Jurilovca and Sarichioi, the custom has remained the same, though with a slight difference: the sailboat pulling the eight-boat convoy has got an engine. Otherwise, while industrial European fishing benefits from sophisticated equipment (with a multitude of little bulbs and electronically controlled devices), seining on Lake Razelm, in October, is done with solemn pomp, as if in a performance at a village museum. Lipovan fishermen disdainfully refuse the use of glass fibre boats and anything modern in the art of fishing. They simply go on drowning the worms drilling through the wood of their old fishing tools by sinking them for days in the lake water and they also go on scarfing their nets as their parents had taught them.

In the old days, things went something like this: dawn hadn’t broken yet when the boats would quietly glide down the channel, in groups of eight, connected to one another by bowlines and pulled by a sailboat. Only the sharp cries of birds and the regular rustle of the sea would be heard. And, perhaps, now and then, a fisherman’s yawn. Jokes and banters would begin only after sunrise. Now that’s a real show; as ataman (the leader of an orderly, but motley, group of fishermen), imposing oneself and standing against scathing Lipovan sarcasm is not easy at all. Especially since choosing the spot where the nets are to be thrown in is no child’s play…

From the shore, Lake Razelm looks like a sea, and, when the wind blows, huge waves rise up. The seining season has begun in good weather. At six a.m. one could hear only the rubbery squeak of the sixteen pairs of wellingtons getting into the boats. It took us two hours to reach the spot where the first fishing net was thrown. Seining is done with a fascinating choreography: the eight boats get into a circle, and the fishermen infix the quants in the slimy bottom of the lake whose depth seldom exceeds two metres. Once the boats are steady, the nets are thrown in, forming an underwater circle which begins to close in on its own centre. Throwing in the nets and gathering them lasts at least two hours. At the end you can find yourself empty-handed or with tons of fish. Some of the fishermen say it’s a matter of luck, others say it’s pure science. Whatever it is, it means that luck and science can pass you by. Or strike you just a bit, enough to make you bitter, that is, land only a few hundred kilos of bream, crucian or rudd in your it happened on the first day of seining of this season.

Before, when there was fish in the lake, seining would take even several days and the fishermen would eat and sleep in the boats where they would also make fish borsch. Hari, our Lipovan friend, made us the borsch on a device, that is, a metallic, bottom-sealed cylinder where the fire is made and on which the kettle is placed. It’s been a while since Hari has last made borsch in the boat because the fish in the lake isn’t enough to make them spend entire days on the lake, fishing.

‘They’re after us. The lake has almost no fish anymore, and, on top of everything, they’re hurling taxes at us. They want us mopped up. All the fishermen of Jurilovca will take to their heels. Nobody will be left here; only poachers.’ The first time Hari went abroad to work was when the pond behind his house was leased. One day, he was simply forbidden from going there, the pond where he spent his childhood, the pond on which he’d skate in wintertime and ice fish, the pond which had always given him food, the pond which had always been part of his garden...One day, a fence was raised between him and his pond. ‘I can’t even take a walk there. Apparently, I have to pay a fee...’ Over ten years ago, left home and went to Italy. Then he returned and went to Tenerife. For ten years he hasn’t found peace. And he can neither search, nor find it anywhere.

He remembers the fish market in Milan, all the fish lying in a pyramid as if in a picture from National Geographic and himself discreetly checking their gills: ‘I saw people buying them and I felt nothing but pity. Had these people ever tasted fresh fish? I was dying for a bowl of fish borsch. But not made from carrions.’

Next come to mind the cliffs of Tenerife, luxury cars and people wearing sunglasses as if they were in a mob movies, a boss wallowing in wealth, a boss who had ostentatiously dug a pub in a cliff, such a luxurious life indeed that, looked at from Hari’s yard in Jurilovca (where he doesn’t even have running water), it seems nothing but a joke. So Hari laughs and brings us two black volcanic stones. He shows them to us, smells them, rubs them and says: ‘I carried tones of these stones in Tenerife…’

Then there’s fisherman Victor with the sea gulls, his ‘hens’ which he feeds in the morning. He agreed to take us along when checking his setlines. He was dripping with sweat while struggling with the quants (gnarled poles rising above water like stakes, with which the wire nets used to catch the fish are fixed), the boat was rocking to and fro while Victor was striving to get the quants out; he told us laughing: ‘to me, this is like a holiday. It’s the easiest job and the most wonderful life. What more could you want? You go out on the lake early in the morning, fresh air, sea gulls all around you...this isn’t work; it’s holiday.’ What Victor wants to point out is that his work here is a piece of cake compared to what he does in Ireland, on the fishing vessels where he has to carry tons of weights, where cold and dampness penetrate his bones, as painfully as a sharp claw, twelve hours a day. ‘Who has the guts to do that type of work? Romanians and Asians. The Irish stay in their cabins. But I can’t complain. It’s hard work, but the pay is good.’ Had he worked only on Razelm, he couldn’t have supported his family.

Besides the fact that the lake has no more fish, the authorities are simply mocking the last fishermen of Jurilovca. Victor says that, according to the last regulations, he should go fishing with two boats: one for the fish, the other for bookkeeping. He has to have all that paperwork with him in case a surprise control should occur and, therefore, take hold of one of the boats, Victor says half jokingly; he cannot make anything of the changes occurring overnight, of the fact that there’s a difference between a natural person and an authorized person...Isn’t it him in both instances? Although he has tried to be fair, although he has brought everything he was demanded although he has paid all the taxes, everything is enveloped in uncertainty and the thought that a control might pop up and discover he’s missing a paper makes his heart race…

The fishing authorization, the Delta tax, the state tax (which you have to pay whether you’ve caught fish or not), city hall taxes, boat taxes, tool taxes, rattle snakes (little plastic fish, with a series on them, which are placed on authorized tools), navigation tax, tax to enter the Delta, ecology tax, other taxes and fees, all of these he has paid; while unfolding his misery, he stops and pricks his ears: ‘Do you hear them?’ He takes his hand to his eyes, scrutinizes the lake, then spitefully spits into the water. ‘See those guys with the motorboat?’

‘Poachers. They’re here every day. Why aren’t their papers checked? So, you see, am I right not to go into the wide world and do something for myself?’ Really. Are we not right to do it?