There’s a joke in my head of why fishermen have such long arms. Is it because of all those fishing nets they have pulled in over the years or is it those classic stories they need to tell of the ‘biggest fish that got away’.
The techniques used today are very aggressive. They catch seals, dolphins and larger sharks facing extinction. My nets never did this, my nets were sustainable, but their nets clean up the ocean.
What isn’t a joke is what’s happening in the Gulf of Mexico and you wish the arm of the law could be long enough to pull in those responsible for such calamities.
But this is a story not about ‘blame’. Not at all. It’s about simple innovation and how progress can, every so often, make ‘some’ human beings truly worthy.
One of them is John Giannakodakis.
Not only is he the last in a long line in the great tradition of Greek fishing, he is the holder of a remarkable legacy that makes this story worthy enough to tell.
Before oil, whales were one of our largest source of industrial materials, and its worth considering if man hadn’t discovered oil would the Japanese or Norwegian appetites for the sea be what they are today, if whales had also gone the way of the dinosaur and the dodo.
The 20th Century has managed to squeeze in more technological innovation and destruction (due to technology) than all of the preceding 10 centuries put together.
The theory why, is oil has sped up industrial growth to such an unnatural degree our blood might as well not be made up of oxygen and iron, but of high performance diesel.
John Giannakodakis and his friend Andreas Polygerinos arrived in Australia in 1955 in Port Lincoln. The boat trip from Greece took 33 days back then.
I spoke to him with his son George by his side who, with the risk of having to labour a point, can now make that trip back to Greece today in less than 24 hours.
George with his father chipping in explained, “Because they were fishermen in Greece they were keen to know where the best places were to fish.
It was a local Australian fisherman who pointed them in the right direction.
“In the beginning they were catching mostly Tommy Ruffs until one day a shark got caught in their net. This is when they realised they could catch sharks in a similar way.
“In those days” said John, “the main of way catching gummy sharks”, that is the ‘flake’ you can buy in a fish n chip shop, “was by ‘line fishing’, which was very inefficient. We thought maybe using the right kind of net would be better. So, I sent a design of a net to my father back in Greece.”
This design was not like your average net, the eyelets are bigger and “the netting material, in order to catch a very large fish, has to be stronger and woven in a particular way.” said John.
“My father made the net right there on Posidi Beach in Halkithiki where he lived, and then sent it by post back to Australia.”
When it arrived the Australian customs officer couldn’t believe that a net with such big holes would ever work.
“So we never had to pay duty on it.” said John with his son George laughing.
The net proved to be an instant success and the sharks they were catching were 30 to 40 pounds, which back then was unheard of.
“It took about a year of their success for rumours to get around” said George. “Then this man asked to cut off a meter of my father’s net to copy the design of the weave.”
Very quickly, John Giannakodakis’ design was being used by fishermen across the board, “and it’s still being used to this very day, making my father the pioneer of this technique.” said George.
And so I asked the crude question whether they ever made any money from the design.
“Back in those days they weren’t aware of things like patents. Since they were immigrants they were doing it to simply make a living.”
John and Andrias continued to fish like this for five years.
It was never full time. During the day they would pour concrete for a local silo building project and after dinner go out at night, drop their nets and sleep on the boat.
The following morning they would pull up their catch and bring it back to sell to SAFCOL, the fish processing company and be back at the building site before 9am.
John sadly added, “But some of the fisherman started to build very deep nets which caused to them to over fish, as well as inflict unnecessary damage to the sea bed below.”
Unfortunately their boat sank and they never quite recovered financially.
SAFCOL did intervene and offered one of their company boats and for John to be on their payroll.
He never took up this offer, “Maybe I could have done what I love full time.”
In a period of a single generation the fishing industry transformed and has become, like farming, solely intensive.
I asked John what he felt about this.
It was very clear to him the corner that had been turned was a tragic one. His voice painfully stumbled over this issue.
“The techniques used today are very aggressive” said John, “They catch seals, dolphins and larger sharks facing extinction. My nets never did this, my nets were sustainable, but their nets clean up the ocean.”
There was an honourable attempt by this man, now in his 80s, to be reasonable about the likes of SAFCOL.
But what was very thinly veiled was a personal disappointment in those few greedy men who have now spoilt the name of fishing for everyone.
Unfortunately this is the most dominant issue regarding this timeless profession.
But John was determined to convey it’s not all negative, that there can be a ‘balance’ to everything.
Like the story where he caught a shark as long as his boat, but it escaped taking one of his famous nets and that wonderful story with him.