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Cormorant fishing on the Li River during the blue hour of dawn, Guangxi, China. (stveak /Adobe Stock)

Man and Bird Join Forces: The Unique Tradition of Cormorant Fishing

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Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man how to fish, and you will feed him for a lifetime. This ancient proverb is a well-known saying around the world, and is directly tied to one of the oldest sources of food for humans across the world. Fishing is scientifically and archaeologically documented to some of the earliest eras of human history, and was always a crucial aspect of every culture and civilization. Over the years, many unique forms of fishery developed – traditional, regional methods that would grow to define a nation and its people. From the fishing villages of Scandinavia, to the remote island communities of the Hebrides, all the way to the ancient Egyptians on the river Nile: fishing was always an integral part of every nation – no matter the age. Today we will learn of a unique method called cormorant fishing, an old tradition that uses birds, which is struggling to survive due to the modernization of fishing industries.

A Short History of Fishing

The history of fishing goes back a long way. Even at the dawn of humanity, the rippling scales of the torsional, muscular fish in the rivers were seen as an efficient and fairly easy way to obtain food. Archaeology has proven to us that even the earliest human forms, Homo Habilis and Homo Erectus , practiced some form of fishing, dated to around 500,000 years ago.

How primitive these methods were we can never know with certainty, but it should not be a surprise if it was simple catching fish by hand. However, research shows that by the appearance of Homo Sapiens and the early modern man around the time of the Upper Paleolithic, between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago, proper fishing techniques began developing in earnest. Various discoveries of net weights, fishing spears, and bone fishing hooks indicate that fishing was an established and common method of acquiring food.

As the ages progressed and early cultures and civilizations began emerging, fishing became an essential source of food and took on a larger scale. For all early civilizations and in antiquity, fishing became a major commercial activity as well. Well documented finds from Egypt indicate the early use of nets, lines, and rods, as early as 3,500 BC. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, fishing expanded to the sea and became a focus of extensive trade networks .

Menna and Family Hunting in the Marshes, Tomb of Menna. (CC0)

Menna and Family Hunting in the Marshes, Tomb of Menna. ( CC0)

From the late Middle Ages onward, fishing industries took on a much larger scale, especially in certain areas of Europe and the world which lacked extensive agricultural land. One great example is the North Sea coast and the Baltic, in which the famed Hanseatic League emerged. This was a network of trade guilds and connected cities whose primary focus was fishery. But out of all of these methods – one stands apart. And that is the practice of cormorant fishing.

What is Cormorant Fishing?

Cormorants are a family of widespread aquatic birds, numbering around 40 different species with great similarities. As you might guess, these birds are fish eaters, catching their prey by diving at high speeds from the surface. Because of their biological need to rapidly move under water, cormorants have short wings, and thus they are not the best fliers in the bird world. But it is exactly this combination of traits that made them a focus of a rather unique method of fishing.

Fishing with the help of cormorants is an ancient tradition, and has been documented in several parts of the world, with a particular emphasis on China and Japan. However, the method is documented in Greece and Macedonia as well, with some minor use in regions of Britain and France too.

The basic principle of cormorant fishing relies on training the bird in several different aspects. Most of these fishermen tie a snare around the bird’s long throat. This feature prevents the cormorant from swallowing a large catch, but allows it to eat the smaller fish. The large catch is either spat up by the bird for the fisherman, or simply held in the beak.

A fisherman trains his cormorant to catch fish. (imphilip /Adobe Stock)

A fisherman trains his cormorant to catch fish. ( imphilip /Adobe Stock)

Man and Bird, and Nothing in Between

For the Chinese, this method of fishing has been known since the earliest periods of their history. It is believed that it is from here that the practice originates and spread to neighboring Asian countries. Some scholars agree that the Japanese, Koreans, Hindus, and the Indo-Chinese nations all adopted the practice from mainland China. It became particularly practical and widespread in Buddhist cultures, since that religion prohibits the killing of living creatures, fish included. Thus, when a cormorant does it for you – there is no guilt.

The main development of cormorant fishing in China was centered on the Li Jiang River (Li River) of the Xijiang River system. Situated near the Guilin of the Guangxi region , the river is home to true traditional cormorant fishermen of China, where this trade was brought down for countless generations. It is said that the Li River fishermen have been involved in this trade for thousands of years, and some of them still rely on age old methods and techniques, avoiding modern implements.

Immersed in the peace and the picturesque ambience of the Li River, the elderly cormorant fishermen, the last of their dying trade, are dressed in ancient Chinese clothes. Wearing the traditional Chinese conical hats and capes, and sailing on narrow rafts made from six long bamboo poles, they while away the day in the company of two cormorant birds. Often trained from a young age, these birds are not in any way caged or afraid of their human companions.

They allow handling and freely balance themselves on a large pole which the fisherman carries on his shoulder. The Chinese have devised a clever method of exploiting the intelligence of these birds and training them: for every seven fish they catch, the eighth goes to the cormorant. The bird knows this, and will eagerly deliver the first seven catches to the fisherman, knowing the next one is its reward. Thus it was proven that a cormorant can count (at least) to eight. Never moving too far from the boat, the birds dive in for the catch and promptly deliver it to the bamboo raft.

A cormorant diving in for a catch. Credit: Andrea Izzotti / Adobe Stock

A cormorant diving in for a catch. Credit: Andrea Izzotti / Adobe Stock

As the night falls, the fishing goes on. The bamboo rafts are lit up by small gas light at the front, on top of which the cormorants perch in search of the next catch. The whole setting provides a truly scenic picture. Nowadays it is a basis for tourist attractions and photography, from which these fishermen have to survive – as the modern industry of fishing, river cruises, tourism, and travel, have largely destroyed the traditional ways of life and defeated the original purpose and the need for cormorant fishing.

The Emperor’s Finest Fishermen: Gifu’s Pride

In Japan, the cormorant fishing tradition is well-documented. It is stated that the historic beginning of the Japanese cormorant fishing is the year 813 AD; but several sources mention a nocturnal aspect of this tradition is much older. One historical report, titled Kojiki, is dated to 712 AD, almost a century earlier, and mentions this practice in detail.

This fishing method is established in 13 cities across Japan, and is traditionally called ukai (鵜飼). But one of the central regions which preserves this tradition to the fullest is Gifu of the Gifu Prefecture, on the Nagara River. The cormorant fisheries of Gifu were mentioned in 1028 in a document which states that their fishermen operate with 12 birds each – a tradition that survives to this very day. There are fishermen in Gifu today who can trace their lineage to at least 1300 – and they still preserve their family heritage of fishing with these majestic birds.

Keisai Eisen's print of cormorant fishing on the Nagara River during the Edo period. (Public Domain)

Keisai Eisen's print of cormorant fishing on the Nagara River during the Edo period. ( Public Domain )

On the Nagara River, the main focus is the catching of the Ayu fish, a sweetfish that is the source of numerous delicacies. The fishing season lasts from April to October, with an emphasis on preserving the ecosystem and a balanced population of fish.

During the Japanese Medieval period, master cormorant fishermen were given official patronage from the Emperor himself. These masters were known as ushō (鵜匠) and carried the official title of “Cormorant Fishermen of the Imperial Household Agency – a hereditary title. Since Japan still has an Emperor , and cormorant fishing is a part of the Imperial Household, both the practice and the Nagara River have become protected, which helped preserve the ecosystem of the region and the old fishing methods.

Contrary to the Chinese practices, the fishermen of Gifu are seldom solitary. Instead, their nimble 13-meter (42.65 ft.) boats – known as ubune (鵜舟) – will hold three crewmen: the master fisherman at the front, the central rower nakanori (中乗り), and the rower at the back, the tomonori (艫乗り). At the very front is a specially designed pole (篝棒 kagaribō) which holds a basket in which an open fire is created. This is an invaluable tool for nighttime fishing.

The cormorants, tied and controlled with thin ropes, will eagerly catch the fish that gathers close to the fire light. With the neck snare preventing them from swallowing big fish, fishermen simply drag the cormorants back to the boat and retrieve the catch.

Night fishing with birds in Gifu, Japan. (PhotoerNgo /Adobe Stock)

Night fishing with birds in Gifu, Japan. ( PhotoerNgo /Adobe Stock)

King James I and His Love of Cormorants

In Europe, cormorant fishing was not a known practice until the 14th century, when it got introduced in several regions. The earliest mention in this region is dated to 1557 in Venice. As a tradition it was known in Greece, but on a small scale. It is still practiced by some fishermen today.

In Britain and France, cormorants have been caught for use in fishing actively since the 17th century, but not so much for practical purposes - rather as a sport, similar to falconry. As such, it became practiced in Belgium, France, and Britain, paired with the older practice of fishing with otters. In England, it became a royal sport, similar to hawking. During the reigns of James I (1566-1626), and Charles I (1600-1649), cormorant fishing reached its height, and a title was created for the members of the Royal Court, called the “Master of Cormorants.” One man who held this title was John Wood, a trainer and keeper of birds for James I.

John Wood is mentioned numerous times in relation to James and cormorants, and was the king’s chief supplier and trainer of birds, giving rise to his significance in the court. It is stated that Mr. Wood travelled “into  some  of  the  furthest  parts  of  this  realm  for young  cormorants,  which  afterwards  are  to  be  made fit for his Majesty's sport and recreation .” Reedham, a coastal town in Norfolk, is also mentioned as one of the chief spots from which young cormorants were acquired.

Judging from several accounts, James was extremely fond of cormorant fishing. Sources point to the historic city of Thetford in Norfolk as being the center of cormorant fishing. One of the major pieces of evidence for this is the report of the German nobleman Duke Ludwig Friedrich of Württemberg-Mömpelgard, who visited England and James on his tour. The report states:

“Then His Excellency dined with His Majesty, and after leaving the table they drove to the river in a coach, where they watched cormorants - birds diving into the water on a signal of their master, who trained them, and catching eels or other fish, and are initiated by another signal to hand them over and spit them out alive – a wonderful thing to be witnessed.”

Cormorant fishing slowly lost its appeal in England and France - around the year 1700 for the former, and around 1736 for the latter. Afterwards, around the beginning of the 19th century, the practice had a revival in Holland, from where it once again spread to France and then England. Nevertheless, cormorant fishing didn’t catch on for good, and was ousted by modern commercial fishing. It had completely stopped in these parts of Europe around the year 1890.

Death of a Tradition at the Hands of Modern Industries

Fishing remains one of the most popular hobbies for some, is a crucial source of food for others, and a valuable branch of economy for a number of nations in the world. Over time, fishing took on numerous forms, benefiting from the ingenuity of humans who developed unique methods to make the process easy and rewarding.

Fisherman and cormorant bird at sunset. (alexshot /Adobe Stock)

Fisherman and cormorant bird at sunset. ( alexshot /Adobe Stock)

Cormorant fishing is by far one of the most inspiring of these methods, and has become a valuable tradition in several countries, chiefly Japan and China. Alas, we are seeing the rapid extinction of the traditional practices, which are threatened by the ever-rapid expansion of mass fishing methods, industrial fisheries, and other modern menaces.

Top Image: Cormorant fishing on the Li River during the blue hour of dawn, Guangxi, China. ( stveak /Adobe Stock)

By Aleksa Vučković

References

Beike, M. 2012. The history of Cormorant fishing in Europe . Vogelwelt.

Fater, L. 2020. The Japanese Seabirds Who Fish for the Emperor. Atlas Obscura. [Online] Available at:
https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/what-is-japanese-cormorant-fishing

King, J. 2013. The Devil’s Cormorant: A Natural History. University of New Hampshire Press.

Various. 2008. Von Brandt’s Fish Catching Methods of the World. John Wiley & Sons.

Waltman, J. 2005. 100 Weird Ways to Catch Fish. Stackpole Books.

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