[For centuries, residents of Yumingzui, a village of 562 people in the eastern province of Shandong, enjoyed a quiet life by the ocean, harvesting enough fish, sea cucumbers and abalone to support a prosperous seafood trade. While nearby villages fell victim to tourism and development, Yumingzui persevered, clinging to ancient fishing rites and homes made of seaweed.]
By Javier C. Hernández
Xue Qingping, a fisherman in Yumingzui Village, China, drove his boat
from the docks into the bay at dusk so he could fish at night.
Credit Adam Dean for The New York Times
YUMINGZUI VILLAGE, China — On a moonless night, when there was nothing in the air except the smell of rotting seaweed and the songs of drunken fishermen, Wang Xinfeng sneaked onto a boat by the dock and sailed into the darkness.
Like his father and grandfather before him, Mr. Wang, 53, made a living combing the Yellow Sea for flounder, herring, fat greenling and yellow croaker. But now the government, hoping to limit environmental damage and encourage villagers to find new jobs, had banned fishing during the summer.
Mr. Wang, desperate to pay medical bills, had taken to venturing into the water at night to avoid detection.
“I was raised at sea — this is my home,” he said. “Even if it’s a rough life, I have to fish.”
For centuries, residents of Yumingzui, a village of 562 people in the eastern province of Shandong, enjoyed a quiet life by the ocean, harvesting enough fish, sea cucumbers and abalone to support a prosperous seafood trade. While nearby villages fell victim to tourism and development, Yumingzui persevered, clinging to ancient fishing rites and homes made of seaweed.
Now Yumingzui is on the verge of extinction. Pollution, overfishing and rising sea temperatures, brought on by global warming, have devastated the supply of fish. Local officials, hoping to invigorate the economy and reduce reliance on outdated industries, have imposed restrictions on fishing and ordered the village to be demolished next year to make way for a luxury resort.
The plan has prompted fear among the people of Yumingzui, many of whom trace their ancestry back hundreds of years. Some are wrestling with the loss of a place they consider sacred. Others have deep anxieties about adopting a modern lifestyle, worried about prospects for a new career and the high cost of amenities like electricity.
Many fishermen have pledged to keep fishing, even after the village is destroyed.
“What else can I do, become an accountant?” Mr. Wang said as he carried buckets of bait and trash through ankle-high mud.
Yumingzui, named for the cries of the fish that were said to surround its shores, was once a fisherman’s paradise. Its location near the southern tip of Qingdao, a major port city once occupied by Japan and Germany, gave it access to a booming market for seafood.
But lax enforcement of fishing and antipollution rules, as well as the proliferation of commercial fishing boats, has left the surrounding waters depleted of the delicacies that visitors demand.
Across eastern China, overfishing has become a crisis, and species that were once common, like eel and Spanish mackerel, are now scarce. In 2014, fishermen caught 13 million tons of fish, official statistics show, exceeding the national limit by more than four million tons.
In hard-hit areas, the government has sought to promote tourism as an alternative to fishing, encouraging villagers to lead tours and open hotels and restaurants. In some towns, bulletin boards offer guidance on being good hosts, reminding people to dress nicely and dutifully respond to questions from visitors.
In recent years, dozens of villages have been demolished to make room for resorts catering to the growing middle class, with names like Golden Sand and Mangrove Tree.
The increase in tourism has helped spread prosperity to villages like Yumingzui, but the high demand for seafood has also brought destruction to the environment.
“I love the sea, but not everybody respects the rule of nature,” said Liu Qiang, 46, who was born and raised in Yumingzui. “Tourists are the reason fishermen are exploiting the sea.”
Mr. Liu said that today, it takes him about two weeks to catch the same amount of fish he could catch in one day in the 1990s.
When word came several years ago that Yumingzui would be razed to make way for a resort, villagers protested. Some traveled to Beijing in hopes of persuading officials to reconsider the decision.
To ease the concerns of villagers, the government offered apartments in a modern complex called South Island Tower, complete with German-style architecture, high-speed internet and palatial entryways.
But several residents said they were still unsatisfied.
Chen Ruifen, 70, who moved to the village a half century ago when she married her husband, a fisherman, said she thought the plan would benefit local officials, not ordinary people.
“We don’t even have money to put any decorations on our walls,” said Ms. Chen, a sweet potato, radish and wheat farmer.
As she sat at the entrance of her courtyard home, her hands dyed purple from picking mulberries, Ms. Chen recounted how she had pleaded with officials to keep her home.
“I’m getting old and dying soon,” she said. “I don’t know what else I can do.”
Across town, in a house overlooking the southern shore of the village, Xue Li, 45, said he would miss waking up each day to blue skies and the wail of the sea breeze. He stared into the distance as the sun set on a row of high-rise apartments across the bay.
“These are our roots,” he said. “Nobody wants to move.”
His son, Xue Shenye, 17, who is studying to become a cook, disagreed. For young people, he said, Yumingzui is quaint and isolated. “We can’t live like this forever,” he said.
Many fishermen said they would continue to pursue their lifestyle after they relocated, partly because they considered it a duty, and partly because they did not have other options.
Xue Qingbin, 48, who has fished near Yumingzui for more than three decades, said the challenges posed by environmental destruction were becoming more apparent. He said there were now only three good months of fishing each year. Still, with a daughter in college and a son in middle school, he said he had no choice but to fish.
“We need money to pay for our children’s education,” he said, “and now we’re getting old and can’t find other jobs.”
After fishing all night, Mr. Wang returned from the sea shortly after 8 a.m. with a bucket of jellyfish. It was a disappointing catch, and he said he felt the ocean had been particularly unkind that day.
Mr. Wang crossed a beach riddled with the remains of crabs and the skeletons of boats that had been abandoned long ago. He set down his bucket, looked to the horizon and said a prayer for the next day’s catch.
Karoline Kan and Adam Dean contributed reporting.