Dimitris Zannes has dedicated his life to his two great loves - his wife and the ocean. But now, witnessing an ocean in decline from the frontlines of his fishing boat, he wonders what kind of ocean he will leave to his sons.
Few modern occupations are so intrinsically tied to nature, where livelihood is crucially dependent on an acute understanding of weather, tides, currents, seasons, and a plethora of interconnected natural behaviours.
But for many fishermen, especially independent operators, it is not a science. It’s a feeling. A natural understanding that comes with a decades-long relationship with the ocean. A relationship that shares all the ups and downs and intricate complexities of any interpersonal relationship.
You could say Dimitris Zannes was born with this hardwired into his DNA. His father lived a life on the ocean and from the age of 12 Dimitris had already decided that this was his true calling.
His passion for the ocean and all that lies beneath is unmistakable when he speaks. But as he looks to pass the torch to the next generation of fishermen of Andros, Greece, he asks desperately for us all to question our own relationships with the ocean.
Interview by film director Charalampos Giannakakis (translated from Greek).
Charalampos Giannakakis (CG) - How did you know you wanted to become a fisherman?
Dimitris Zannes (DZ): The knowledge of knowing what I want to do in my life and what I love came early on when my father first took me to sea one evening to lift a line that he had put out. I was seriously captivated by the beauty, the calmness of the sea, the fish, and the phytoplankton illuminating from down below, shining brightly throughout the whole sea area. I realised that there, beneath me, was an infinite universe. That's when I fell in love and decided to do this as a job, a way of thinking, and a way of living.
CG: And to become a good fisherman, I presume you need to love the ocean?
DZ: To become a good fisherman, like in every profession, you need to love your job and the area you work in. It is a vital ingredient. You need to love the sea, to nurture it, to love to understand it. If you don’t understand how the sea works - its currents, the depth - or have the desire to gain this knowledge, you won’t get any return. You need to understand the fish, when they eat, when they reproduce, when they are near the shoreline, when they are away from the shoreline. All of this means that you have to give your utmost attention to the ocean.
CG: What are the rewards of this profession?
DZ: To make the choice of becoming a fisherman, especially today, has nothing to do with making money as the financial gains are near to nothing. In the past the wage was good, but it’s not like that now. When you choose to become a fisherman today, you make this choice because you love the sea, you fall in love with it - the chase, the anguish between the feeder and the prey. For sure the decision hasn’t got to do with the profession’s conditions nor the wages. Making this decision is driven by the emotional reward that it offers.
"To be honest, I am a fulfilled man who has two great loves which I have managed to combine well together. And quite frankly, I wouldn't change this."
CG: Are there any existing notions of fishermen that you would regard as untrue?
DZ: Many people believe that fishermen are hunters and they do not respect their prey or their environment. It is not like this at all. Of course there are the outcasts, the bad actors, like there are in all occupations. We have a few but the majority of our colleagues love the sea, respect it, look after it, and are responsible in the way they fish.
CG: Can you tell us of any special or unique experiences you have had at sea?
DZ: I would say the most beautiful experience that I have had at sea occured far away from the shoreline, between the islands of Andros and Chios. I came upon some fishing nets and there was a dolphin which was trapped. Its tail was caught in the nets and it could barely keep afloat. It was trying to come up for air, but It was drowning.
At that time I was with my Egyptian assistant. We stopped and hung ourselves from the railings of the fishing boat into the water to try save it. While we were trying to untangle it from the nets, I felt a presence next to me. I turned and right next to my head I saw the mother of the baby dolphin. She was so close that I saw my idol in the eye of the animal. There was an unbelievable calmness between us. I felt that we were communicating with respect for each other.
As soon as we had untangled her baby, she was in and out of the water as though she was trying to thank us. This is when I understood that we have a great connection with these types of animals and that we need to work together in order to live together. I can say that is by far the best experience I have ever had until today.
CG: Have you ever considered changing your occupation?
DZ: No, when I first left the army, madly in love with my partner and the back and forth from Athens, I did attempt to, but all attempts were unsuccessful.
Dimitris, along with many other fishermen who share the waters surrounding Andros, were among the first to witness first hand that the fragile balance of the ocean was shifting. Catches had become smaller. The size of the fish had become smaller. The balance was in danger of being lost.
While some are quick to pin the blame squarely on the fishermen themselves, Dimitris soon discovered that many other fishermen were becoming aware of the problem and eager to find a solution.
But what lay before them was a tangled mess of regulations, a disconnect between those on the water and those governing it, and a long journey to a resolution.
CG: You are highly involved in working against the problem of overfishing, when did you first become aware of the issue?
DZ: In 1995 I first purchased my first fishing boat. It was only then, when I was out at sea as a captain, that I came to think the sea was inexhaustible. I believed that I could work as much as I wanted, that I could catch as many fish as I wanted, that I would have financial gains and it would never end.
But then in 2000, I began to realise that although we used more equipment, the quantity of the catch had begun to decline. I was convinced we weren’t doing something correctly when it came to the management of these natural resources, and how we took advantage of them. This made me want to understand what was going on. I started to read scientific magazines, trying to understand where we get our directions from, which organisations are involved, how they operate, and how I could help change this.
This then led me to begin working with European organisations and colleagues of the same occupation. What was in front of us was a mess. We were a member of the European Union, subject to European and international laws, and on a national level, we didn't want to change, so the decision-making centre was a mess. Since 1966, we have been subject to a royal decree that also imposes strict fishing regulations.
I made the decision to bring about a change with my knowledge and influence the decision-makers with my know-how after realising that this needed to change on a national and internal level.
CG: Describe how this journey has been and the difficulties you’ve faced.
DZ: The entire journey has been very difficult. It’s hard for fishermen to understand how things operate, who makes the decisions, and how the bureaucratic system operates in the European Commission, European Union, and on a national level.
Another challenge was that I had to communicate in a different language to what fishermen converse in. I needed to talk numbers, it was demanding explaining things to technocrats in a way they could understand.
But at the same time there were also positive aspects. We found there were similar concerns with all fishermen in Europe - the Mediterranean, the North Sea - more or less we all had similar concerns. I met some truly wonderful and remarkable people who I have kept in touch with. I learnt about their culture, I shared our ethos, and this beautiful journey which still continues today has given me an enormous amount of knowledge.
CG: Talk to us a little about numbers.
DX: The decline in reserves, and the difficult times for fishing which are coming, are proven through various studies. It has been proven that the size of fish has decreased. In the past, 30% of our catch had reached maximum size and maturity. This is not how it is today, where we do not catch fish that have reached their full state of fruition.
Furthermore, 80% of the Mediterranean Sea is being fished commercially. Through international research, what we are seeing is that two thirds of the fish population is being demolished. This means that we will need to take drastic measures quickly if we want to reverse the damage.
CG: What is the picture today and what are the solutions?
DZ: The key and foundation to it all is the direct contact we have with the end user. If we don’t ask for big fish, or specific types, then they won’t be sold.
But at the same time the perspective of the research community has changed, we are no longer two separate entities like in the past where we did not have good relations. Now we work together and we understand the problems.
Realising a need for change, Dimitris now plans to shift his focus to tourism fishing - a concept that could bridge the gap between the catch and the end user while simultaneously serving to preserve the piece of cultural heritage that the fishermen and their caïques bring to the island of Andros.
CG: Can you elaborate on the concept of tourism fishing?
DZ: Fishing tourism is a new horizon which is opening up for us fishermen, a new activity which can bring in extra financial benefits to this line of work. Through this procedure we can get our visitors to experience a few hours of a fisherman's life at sea and what is hidden in the ocean; capturing the true essence of catching, cooking and tasting freshly caught fish on board a Greek wooden fishing boat.
"It includes the idea of Greece, the Greek summer, sea, fish, fishing, direct contact, civilisation and culture."
CG: Where did the idea come from?
DZ: The idea started in Italy around 20 plus years ago, whereby professional fishermen had the ability to take visitors on their boats and appreciate the process of fishing. Depending on the capacity of the boat, they could also cook on board and relish their catch within an enchanting ocean environment, experiencing the entire process and how the fish reaches their plate. I would say this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience!
Now if we want to see how this came to Greece, in 2015, after many years of pursuing it from the [Italian] fishermen, permission was granted and in 2018 the legislation was concluded. Now most Greek professional fishermen have the opportunity to have visitors on board their boats and to be a part of this experience.
CG: Let’s discuss the benefits of the concept.
DZ: Yes, I will start off with the fishermen. The benefits they have are really good. They have an additional income. It is difficult for someone to live only on a fisherman’s wage. Due to the reduced number of fish and the much smaller fish which we catch, our income has decreased drastically. Tourism fishing gives us the opportunity to have a supplementary income. Seasonal of course, especially over the summer which contributes highly to our income.
That regards the fisherman, however the biggest gain is for the environment. When a caïque, a fishing boat, goes out with visitors for tourism fishing, they do not need to use many kilometres of fishing nets to catch many fish. They use roughly 1km of fishing nets in order for the people to see what the fishing procedure is about but only to catch a few fish for them to taste. The same applies for the longlines, they won’t put out 1000 or 1500 hooks to sea, they will only put in 300. And with fewer fishing tools we are decreasing the fishing pressure, and this is the most important thing that could take place in the sea right now.
Another important gain is the awareness of people. The [tourists] who will go out to sea with you will experience the problems of the ocean first hand. What it means to be a consumer, a consumer with awareness, what it means to get the fish on your plate. You comprehend what it means to be a consumer and what it means to be a fisherman by being on board the boat for a few hours and experiencing the sea, so I think there is gain for everybody.
CG: How do you imagine fishing tourism will evolve in years to come?
I think that fishing tourism will be one of the better, if not the best, tourism products that Greece will have to offer. It includes the idea of Greece, the Greek summer, sea, fish, fishing, direct contact, civilization and culture. I can see this concept strengthening from citizens and beyond. Not all fishermen will be involved in fishing tourism as it will depend on their boats and their temperament. Nevertheless, there will be more in the future. I believe that Greece will certainly offer the best [tourism fishing experience] in the forthcoming years!
Dimitris has two sons who have already begun to form their own bond with the ocean. And as a father passing on all he knows, he understands that one day his boys may too be the ones passing on the ocean to the generation that follows.
CG: Tell us about your two sons, and the difference between them.
DZ: The biggest bet of all is whether my two sons will continue in my footsteps and if they will be as content as I am. George, the middle child, has been onboard the fishing boat since he was four and has an abundance of experience and has seen things that many will only see in a documentary. He has acquired a love for the sea and a fisherman's technique.
He is reaching an age when he will need to decide what he wants to do as he is fifteen. One of his choices is to remain at sea. I won't prevent him from choosing this occupation though I will be honest with what is really in store for him. I will of course pass on all my knowledge, so if he decides [to be a fisherman] he can do it in the best possible way.
My youngest is still young. He doesn't have that bond with the sea like his brother, but he comes with us, he likes it and knows what it is. It's not unlikely that he will get that spark and fall in love with the sea. I will remain close to them, providing them with this blue ocean of possibility.
CG: Did something change in you, towards your job, when you became a father?
DZ: I think that anyone who becomes a parent changes in the way they think and what they want to provide for their children. And even more so when I saw the love that my kids had towards the sea. Even though this is what I wanted, I felt more obliged to protect the sea and deliver it to the next generation. It is egocentric for our generation to want to drink all the water, build all the universe, and to catch all the fish in the sea. What makes you more responsible is knowing that someone is to follow your children.
Dimitris plans to begin offering tours by mid June and looks forward to sharing his passion and profession with all who visit the picturesque island of Andros, Greece.
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