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Fish Bridges

Chapter 2, part 2, from Dancing Shrimp

by Kasma Loha-unchit

While most of the catch of small fishing villages scattered along the kingdom's two extensive coastlines are consumed locally, fleets of large trawlers work the deeper waters of both oceans, bringing in their mammoth hauls to large fish piers in major seaport towns. These piers are aptly called "fish bridges" (sapahn bplah), bridges over which marine life crosses from their watery world into the world of human consumption. These bridges are entry points from which thousands of tons of seafood are packed daily into refrigerated trucks and sped to city markets and processing houses, where they are prepared and frozen or canned for shipment to markets abroad.

In contrast to the quaint fishing scenes, the fish bridges are a bustling madhouse from early morning when the first trawlers arrive, continuing on for hours until the last fish from the last boat is sold. Frenzied activity is the norm, as millions of fish are unloaded, sorted, and hastily moved through chaotic crowds of haggling buyers and sellers, finally to be repacked with ice and loaded onto cars and trucks. Agents for wholesalers, distributors, export houses, canning factories, large retailers, and restaurants arrive early, staking their spots so that they don't miss out on any opportunity to strike their deals for the day. Big money will change hands and savvy agents stand to make a hefty sum with their shrewd bargaining skills.

Fish are unloaded huge barrel by barrel, overflowing case by case, and dumped onto concrete floors of the sheltered piers. Mountainous heaps of small fish are purchased by the lot and hauled off to processing houses. Less overwhelming mounds are sorted out by type and size, the larger and more prized fishes lying mostly single file on the floor. Price tags with large numbers written on cardboard are placed alongside each of the sorted piles. Here and there between large groupings can even be found some rather small batches, with maybe half a dozen or so fish of the same type and size – clearly suitable for small-market vendors, who provide an assortment of varieties for their customers, or small restaurants.

On the outer fringes of the fish piers, small groups of women and men sit in corners cleaning fish for particular agents and wholesalers. Their experience shows as they excavate enormous mountains with great agility – scaling, gutting, filleting, and whatever else they have been contracted to do. The cleaned fish are then loaded onto waiting refrigerated trucks and rushed off to market, processing house, or packaging plant. Of course, the big mounds of guts, heads, tails, fins, and bones left behind are not thrown out but are, in turn, sold to be processed into animal feed and fertilizer.

Besides fish harvested from the sea, fish and shrimp farms along both coasts yield a tremendous added tonnage, making Thailand one of the world's premier exporters of frozen seafood products. Large rectangular ponds dug in flatlands near the shore are filled with water pumped in from the sea. In these aerated pools are raised some of the world's best tiger prawns – so lusciously succulent, plump, tasty, and sweet. Most of them will end up on dinner tables in faraway lands.

Previous: (part 1) A Seafood Culture  |  Next: (part 3) The Birth of Seafood

Copyright © 2000 Kasma Loha-unchit in Dancing Shrimp. All rights reserved.

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