I'm walking in the busy streets of Paris behind two French men proudly holding fishing rods. We wind past patisseries and antique shops and curious looks, eventually stopping in front of Canal Saint-Martin—a historic 19th-century waterway that winds through the capital's northeast and connects to the Seine River.
Today, it is one of Paris' most popular fishing spots, located smack in the middle of the city with traffic all around and kids sitting on the steps smoking cigarettes. A piece of plastic floats by in the canal and my guide, Fred Miessner, casts his rod straight into the water."This isn't a sewage system, it's a river," Miessner says. "Fish are living here and spawning."
As the fifth-largest city in the European Union, Paris seems an unlikely place to catch fish. But in fact, fish have always been a part of Paris' history; the first Parisians were fishermen by trade. In the 17th century, the Seine was teeming with more than 50 varieties of fish, including salmon, which was so abundant that it was known as a fish for the poor.
Eventually, industrial and agricultural runoff smothered the waterways and the canals, originally commissioned to provide city dwellers a source of drinking water, became terribly polluted. By 1900, salmon had disappeared from Parisian waterways. By 1995, only four species of fish—eel, redeye, bream and carp—were left.
In an attempt to clean up the waterways, the government ended up pouring 10 billion euros into the cause. It worked: Today, the Seine is thriving with life; there are roughly 32 species of fish that live in its waters.
In the early 2000s, Miessner, who owns a fishing gear company, started noticing increasing numbers of fish in the Seine. And so, on a whim, he decided to try fishing in the Seine with his friends.
"It was unbelievable: There were so many fish and they were very easy to catch," he says. What started out as a small community of Parisian fishers eventually ballooned to a full-on subculture of street fishing.
Daily, Miessner says he sees at least one other fisherman on his particular corner of the Canal Saint-Martin. Today, more than 6,500 city dwellers hold fishing permits. The modern street fishing culture is predominantly young males, dressed casually in jeans and a T-shirt with just a rod and a small bag of lures—a far deviation from the floppy-hat-fishing-vest-stereotype of their parents' generation. With the exception of the rods, street fishermen are completely inconspicuous and blend in seamlessly with the city.
"In the beginning when I had a rod out here people called me a fool. They said I had lost my mind," Miessner says. "But now it's been more than ten years. People aren't that surprised anymore."
But while there might be plenty of fish, you're still not supposed to eat them. The waters in Paris are still quite polluted and heavy metals and PCBs have accumulated in the flesh of most of the aquatic creatures.
Not everyone cares though. According to Miessner, some populations of Paris, particularly Asian and Eastern European ones, have a tendency to disregard such advice and will still eat the fish."They love any type of fish. Especially white carp and eel," he notes. But from a conservation standpoint, most street fishers tend to abide by a catch and release policy.
"If you take a fish and you eat it, it disappears," Miessner, who received his PhD in environmental economics, says. "It's better if you catch a fish, you take a picture, and you release it. The fact is that we [the street fishers] were the pioneers that revealed that the fish were back."
I spend a good hour on the canal with Miessner and his intern, but nothing really bites. At one point, a perch is almost caught, but it swims away before it's reeled in. The weather is in the mid 90s today, and fish tend to stay away from the surface when it's hot.
There is no shortage of fish though; I can clearly see their shadows from where I am standing on the street. The canal indeed is teeming with life. Aquatic plants hug the surface on the water, dragonflies hover and dance. Miessner says he sees quite a few crawfish. Life in the Seine is quite resilient.
"One month later, we could see all the life come back again," he says.
The cleanup attempt is an ongoing process. The city recently announced their goal of making the Seine clean enough to swim in by 2024. There's no word on whether or not that means the fish will be edible too.
I ask Miessner's intern Hugo Philippon whether or not he has ever eaten the fish in the river and he blushes.
"Once," he admits. Quickly changing the subject, he emphasizes that the point isn't to eat the fish. It's the process that matters. For many street fishers, the sport is a practice of meditation and their way of connecting with nature amidst the hustle and bustle of city life.
"It's your moment. It belongs to you." he says.