For more than a millennium, fishermen and their cormorants have been catching fish in southern China.
Using long wooden paddles, the fisherman glides his bamboo raft along the Li river while, perched upon thin, curved metal staves, several large birds with wings extended, dry themselves in the early morning sun. To encourage the cormorants to dive, the fisherman rocks the rafts while softly humming. One by one, the birds plunge, barely creating a splash as they spear into the water.
Once submerged, natural hunting instincts take over; the feathered guided missiles quickly catch unsuspecting fish and, as they’ve been trained to do, after catching the loot, the cormorant returns to its master on the raft, fish in beak. The fisherman releases the trapped fish – a thin rope around the base of the bird’s throat stops it from swallowing the fish – but every six or seven dives, the assistant must be rewarded with a prize fish. If the fisherman doesn’t honour his side of the deal, the cormorants reduce their activity, effectively embarking on a go-slow strike. Stick to the mutual agreement though and a skilled team of fishermen and birds can catch tens of fish within a few hours.
Cormorant fishing is a traditional method developed in China and Japan some 1 300 years ago. In China, the fishermen ply their trade along 80km of the Li river that winds through the tall, karst mountains of the Guangxi region, from Guilin to Yangshuo.
Should you hike along the banks of the river in Yangshuo after sunset, you will occasionally see the fishermen and their cormorants, sitting on bamboo rafts with oil lamps providing a soft yellow light. Cormorant fishing at night is a spectacular sight to behold. In this quiet night setting, the shadowed fishermen blend in harmoniously with the shadows of the mountains towering in the background.
The flickering oil lamp lights attract the fish to the rafts and the cormorants, endowed with good night vision, need only to dive in and collect them. Cormorant fishing is done early in the morning hours as well, and to increase turnout, the fishermen throw a giant fishing net into the water, trapping the fish underneath. The cormorants have only to dive into the water, grab them with their sharp beaks, and bring them back to the raft.
A DYING TRADITION
Today, cormorant fishing takes place in very few places in China. In some areas it remains a subsistence and livelihood for locals, but increasingly it serves as a demonstration, encouraging tourism and preserving the ancient culture.
Cormorant fishing is a skill close to disappearing and it is likely that the current generation of fishermen, who range in age from 70 to 80, will be the last to preserve this tradition. Global warming and increased environmental pollution have resulted in a decrease in the number of fish in rivers and lakes. The increase in tourism allows the elders of the generation to make a respectable living by displaying their culture, rather than from the fishing itself. Given technological developments of the computer age, the younger generation is no longer interested in this career, preferring the abundance of hi-tech thrills offered up by the internet and its global village.
Only a handful of fishermen and their birds still ply their trade along the banks of the Li, most of them approaching their senior years. Anyone interested in seeing and experiencing this extraordinary tradition should do so sooner rather than later.
Cormorants are a family of aquatic birds that feed on fish, eels and crabs. The most common species in China is the great cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo), also called the black shag. Unlike other birds, cormorants have no oil glands under their feathers, making these feathers water-penetrable and preventing water bubbles from accumulating beneath them. It’s a trait that helps them dive and swim fast, as oily feathers – while making for a warm, insulating barrier – also provide the kind of buoyancy that makes diving and swimming under water harder.
Then black cormorant – much like an otter or seal – can dive 20-30 metres underwater, stay there for several minutes, and locate fish easily. Once out of the water, the birds must spread their drenched wings while facing the wind to dry them out.
To compensate for this lack of wing insulation, the cormorant has a layer of fat under the skin that provides all the insulation it needs.
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WORDS & IMAGES Gilad Fiskus