Fishing with Cormorants in China
Last updated by david at 2015/4/13
TOPThe Origin of Fishing with Cormorants
There are many early "technologies" (inventions that facilitated hunting, farming, food preparation (eg., the use of fire), etc.) in the course of human development that were discovered, or hit upon, roughly simultaneously (i.e., give or take about 5000 years) in different parts of the world, but these were technologies that belong to an ancient past. Later technologies that existed almost simultaneously in different cultures that were in contact with each other, on the other hand, were most likely the result of a discovery made in the one culture only, and which was then transmitted to the other(s), though it of course can't be entirely ruled out that the discoveries occurred independently (even in modern times, a scientific discovery has been made by two different scientists working entirely independently and unawares of the other's research… many Nobel Prizes are awarded to just such scientific duos, each member working independently and entirely unaware of the work of the other).
It is therefore most likely that the art & science of fishing with cormorants, which seems to have been learned both in Japan and in China during China's Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty period, was discovered either by the Japanese, who transmitted the discovery to the Chinese, or vice-versa. Since the first historical mention of fishing with cormorants stems from Japan, we will make the working (preliminary) assumption that fishing with cormorants did indeed stem from Japan, also because the Tang Dynasty was an era of close cultural contact between China and Japan, where, as regards most new inventions and cultural innovations (including the spread of Buddhism in a major way to Japan), it was in fact the Chinese who were in the lead.
Given this relationship, it seems only fair to give credit where credit may be due, and since, as indicated, the first historical mention of fishing with cormorants would seem to be Japanese, we magnanimously grant that it was most likely China's cousin, the Japanese, who "domesticated" cormorants, as it were. The image below is of a boat (ubune) crew of Japanese cormorant fishermen, where the usho is the fisherman who controls the birds, the nakanori is his assistant, and the tomonori is the helmsman, or the crew member who steers the boat. The image is of a night scene where a bonfire in a metal basket (kagari-bi) is suspended from a rod-holding like device (kagari-bou). The light from the bonfire, besides providing illumination for the work of the fishermen, also attracts the fish.
(I have similarly had great luck catching cod from a lighted pier at night in Aarhus, Denmark, though generally they were not large specimen, and I have been party to bluegill fishing (the bluegill (order Perciformes, family Centrarchidae) is a smallish, very tasty freshwater fish sometimes incorrectly referred to as bream, which belongs to the carp (Cyprinidae) family) fishing from a row boat on a small river (or large creek) in Arizona (USA) at night, but unfortunately the light also attracted large, poisonous – albeit, not generally deadly poisonous – snakes called water moccasins, aka the Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus).
Fig 1: Illustration Depicting a Japanese Crew of Cormorant Fishers
Most Chinese cormorant fishers operate either solo or with a single helper, at least today, though in the past, when fish were more plentiful and loomed larger in the diet, the crew may have been larger, as in the highly systematized crew of Japanese cormorant fishers in Figure 1 above. The species of cormorant common to Japan, and thus to cormorant fishing in Japan, is the Japanese Cormorant (Phalacrocorax capillatus) – see Figure 2 below – which is a slightly smaller bird than the cormorant common to China (to be presented in the next section).
Fig 2: The Japanese Cormorant (Phalacrocorax capillatus), aka Temminck's Cormorant
TOPThe "Chinese" Cormorant, and What Makes It a Good Fisher
The most common Chinese cormorant is the Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo), or the Common Cormorant, aka the black cormorant (putong luci [普通屢次]), or just plain luci [屢次]. P.carbo is also sometimes simply called the fish hawk, or the osprey (yu ying [魚鷹]). There are several species of cormorant the world over, and in both Japan and China there are other, smaller cormorant species, but the cormorant species that is used for fishing is the Great Cormorant, Phalacrocorax carbo (and note in the image below (Figure 2) that not all Phalacrocorax carbo are "black as carbon", as the name might suggest – some have quite light-colored feathers, especially on the breast and neck), or its cousin, the Japanese Cormorant.
Fig 3: The Great, or Common, Cormorant, Phalacrocorax carbo
What makes the cormorant such a successful fisher is owing to many things, not least the ease with which it dives (this is also related to the bird's Achilles Heel, as will be seen in the following). The cormorant is an odd bird in the sense that it does not oil its feathers; it does not secrete oil for this purpose – indeed it does not have have the necessary glands. The advantages for a bird of oily feathers is that they provide a form of insulation against the cold, since the oil keeps the bird's feathers from getting soaked, and, probably as well, against the heat. To compensate for this lack of extra insulation, the cormorant therefore has a fatty layer under its skin that provides it all the insulation that the bird requires, while its aquatic diet provides the bird all the fatty intake that is necessary to maintain the bird's insulation layer just beneath the skin.
Fig 4: The Very Aquadynamic Great Cormorant
The disadvantage of oily feathers, for an aquatic bird that feeds below the water's surface, is that oily feathers increase the bird's buoyancy, making it harder to dive – or even to penetrate the surface (this is why many aquatic bird dive like a kamikaze (see the Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus) in Figure 4 below) from high over the water) – and to swim once underwater (of course this buoyancy makes it a lot easier for a bird to float on the surface). The cormorant has no such problem with respect to diving or swimming. Indeed, underwater, the cormorant swims almost like an otter or a seal, or any other marine animal, which is why a cormorant can make the trip to the bottom of a 20-meter deep lake and back with a fish in its beak in the space of only a few minutes, whereas a sea gull, for example, couldn't even dive the 20 meters before its oxygen supply would run out and the bird would have to return to the surface.
Fig 5: The Northern Gannet, Reminiscent of the Shape of the Concorde,
Makes an Aerial (Kamikaze) Dive
Because the cormorant lacks preening oil, its feathers get wet, which is why it has to "air dry" itself periodically, which is why anyone strolling along a beach where the cormorant plies its trade could be forgiven for believing the cormorant to be the original inspiration for all blotters : ). The cormorant will perch itself on stakes left along the beach which formerly marked the boundaries of a fishing net or which belonged to a pier that has long since disap-pier-ed, if the reader will forgive the poetic license.
The cormorant likes to occupy such stakes, either stretching its wings or just taking a rest, the latter because the cormorant is not a very good flyer – its wings are sleek and more designed to offer little or no resistance when snugged against the body, underwater (the lack of preening oil for its feathers probably also has a negative effect on the bird's ability to fly); in fact, the cormorant generally flies hardly a meter over the surface of the water in order to lessen the wind resistance), nor does it sit well on the water's surface, due to its lack of buoyancy.
Fig 6: The Phalacrocorax carbo in Flight
If one hangs around such a set of remnant stakes long enough (sports fishermen generally do), one will inevitably observe a brief challenge between a newcomer cormorant and an "incumbent", where the incumbent is usually chased away (in fact, always, in my experience). Just how the newcomer decides which of the incumbents has been perched longest/ is the driest is anyone's guess – and maybe the newcomer just chooses his victim randomly – but the newcomer can probably determine which of the incumbents is the most "dried out".
(The reason why I tend to believe that cormorants can make this distinction is that I cannot recall, ever (and I am an avid coastal fisher), having seen a perched, challenged cormorant refuse to budge. That is, the assumption is that the driest bird knows that it is time to yield his perch to the newcomer, and he perhaps also knows that the other assembled birds know this too (maybe they have communicated among themselves regarding the first in, first out pecking order, i.e., which bird has been there longest, second-longest, etc.), and perhaps the driest bird knows that if push comes to shove, the assembled flock would even be willing to help the newcomer chase him away... the cormorant is apparently smarter than one might think, as will be seen in the following), though this could be purely coincidental.)
Fig 7: A Much More Idyllic Scene – a Small Nesting Colony
Though the Great Cormorant can dive up to 30 meters if necessary, left to its own devices, it prefers to dive shallow (maximum 1 minute under the water), where it can find a plethora of small fishes (and the occasional larger fish, which one might say was in the wrong place at the wrong time), crustaceans and aquatic insects, which is roughly the same diet that fishes themselves dine on.
TOPA Brief History of Cormorant Fishing in China
In the Introduction, it was suggested that the origin of fishing with cormorants was Japan (the illustration of Figure 1 is from the Japanese city of Gifu, where it is believed (at least by the Japanese :) ) that fishing with cormorants originated). There is in the meantime other evidence – or perhaps one should say, lack of evidence, that suggests that fishing with cormorants was not widespread in China (indeed, it may have been restricted to the Sichuan-Hubei area) before the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty period, though, it must be said that the evidence for this is somewhat contradictory. Therefore we will present the evidence, pro (in favor) and con (opposed), and let the reader make up his/ her own mind.
On the con side, we note that Marco Polo, who travelled extensively in China, and who mentioned all manner of novelties that he encountered in this, for a European, strange and exotic country, never once mentioned what could only have been a truly exotic phenomenon to have witnessed first-hand, had he indeed witnessed it, namely, the art of fishing with the help of cormorants. In other words, it stands to reason that had Marco Polo observed such a novel phenomenon, he would most certainly have written about it, so the fact that he did not mention this unique marvel in his China travels suggests that the intrepid traveler did not observe it.
To strengthen the case against, the other famous Italian traveler of the period, Odoric of Pordenone (whose real name was Odorico Mattiussi (CE ca.1286-1331)), who traveled in China a generation later than had Marco Polo, didn't mention the phenomenon per se, though he did mention "fishing" cormorants. While Marco Polo, as indicated, travelled extensively in China, where he also lived for a long period of time (the period during the CE 1270s-1280s) and apparently served a stint in the Emperor's administration as a trade liaison, Odoric traveled in China for only about 6 years, namely, from the beginning of CE 1323 to the end of CE 1328.
According to his own accounts, Odoric was once taken to a venue to observe something that was billed as being unique, namely, cormorants catching fish, though catching fish for none others than themselves! The novelty of it was apparently that the venue abounded in fish to such a degree that the birds would feed off them, ignoring the presence of humans, in much the same way that grizzly bears, who are normally rather shy about being around humans, will feed on spawning salmon in the rivers of Alaska, surrounded by tourists. The exact locality where Odoric witnessed this phenomenon will, however, forever remain a mystery, but Odoric does add that it was "a city" located on "a certain great river", which, given Odoric's itinerary, is believed to have been in southern China somewhere between the city of Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province and Fuzhou, Fujian Province, some 450 kilometers, as the cormorant flies ; ), farther south of Hangzhou, along the coast.
The significance of this event is that had the "domestication" of cormorants, i.e., the use of cormorants to catch fish for humans, been prevalent in China, Odoric would instead have been taken to a venue to observe a usho – to use the Japanese term for the fisherman who controls the cormorants – managing his flock of cormorants as the birds dived for fish, then delivered them to the usho. The fact that Odoric was not treated to a live spectacle of 'cormorants catching fish for humans', here a generation later than Marco Polo's visit to China, strengthens the notion that fishing with cormorants was surely not a widespread phenomenon in China during the period, even if it may have been known in the more remote regions of Sichuan Province and perhaps in Hubei Province.
Another piece of historical "con" evidence, i.e., evidence highlighting the absence of the cormorant in Chinese fishing culture during the pre-Ming period, is a reference to the cormorant in the official CE 1249 Song Dynasty Pharmacopoeia (Materia Medica, in Latin, or "Medical Almanac", in English – see Figure 8 below for a depiction of a cormorant from the almanac in question), wherein it is noted that the cormorant's excrement, or guano, was used medicinally. That's it! Again, had the cormorant been used to catch fish for humans, this would most certainly have been highlighted in the CE 1249 Song Dynasty Pharmacopoeia, and the fact that it wasn't strengthens further the argument that fishing with cormorants was not a widespread phenomenon in China, if, indeed, it was known at all until it became rather widespread during the Ming Dynasty.
Fig 8: Depiction of a Cormorant in the Official CE 1249 Song Dynasty Pharmacopoeia
On the pro side – which evidence is in fact rather tenuous, since it is open to different interpretations and since the con side above catalogs the absence of the phenomenon of humans fishing with the aid of cormorants – the Tang era poet, Du Fu, is credited with the following couplet:
"Every household keeps cormorants,
There is fish with every meal."
The quote from Du Fu (CE 712-70) is first printed in the Bencao Gangmu ("Compendium of Materia Medica") during the late 16th century that was compiled by a certain Li Shizhen who had a reputation as a thorough researcher, suggesting two things: since no other author or artist had mentioned the practice (others would mention it after Li Shizhen's publication of his compendium), it can be assumed that there existed no other such source, and, since Du Fu mentioned it in a couplet, it must have been genuine. What is left hanging in the realm of uncertainty is exactly where the practice of this novel fishing method took place, that is, where was it – on which Du Fu visit to which locality in which province – did the poet observe this practice?
Since we know from other sources mentioned above that fishing with cormorants was not a widespread phenomenon in China before the Ming Dynasty period, but since Du Fu's couplet suggests a widespread use of the cormorant for fishing – somewhere in China – one can only conclude that if both of these postulates are to be taken to be true, then Du Fu must have been speaking of the practice of fishing with cormorants in a very specific locality of the country – perhaps in Sichuan Province or in Hubei Province, where it is conjectured that the practice may have existed since the Tang Dynasty period. Du Fu is known to have spent time in the Three Gorges area of the Yangtze River, or present-day Chongqing Municipality, which was formerly a part of Sichuan Province (and the Yangtze is indeed "a... great river"), so this all seems to point to the conclusion that the two postulates may indeed be true, and that the "every household" that the poet refers to in the above couplet are the households of the region of the present-day Three Gorges Dam.
Of course, this opens the closet on another skeleton in need of an explanation: if fishing with cormorants was a cultural phenomenon imported from Japan, why was it not more widespread throughout China, and why would it be practiced in, of all places, a remote corner of the empire like Sichuan Province? A possible satisfactory answer to the latter question is that it was a monk from the Three Gorges area who visited Japan and who ran across the practice while proselytizing there, duly learned the art & science of fishing with cormorants from his Japanese hosts, then brought the knowledge back with him to the Three Gorges area, where he was lucky enough to be able to replicate what he had learned in Japan on his native Phalacrocorax carbo cormorants. The imagined scenario is absolutely not implausible, for such was the nature of contacts between the monks of a given monastery in one country with the monks of a specific "sister" monastery in another country.
Another possible satisfactory answer is that someone in China's Sichuan Province during the Tang Dynasty period got the idea in his head to see if he could "domesticate" the cormorant for the purpose of fishing for humans. Though it cannot be ruled out, it is not very likely, but if true would explain why the phenomenon was not widespread throughout China (on the "pro"side here, note that while the Japanese cormorant fisherman from the city of Gifu kept his birds on a leash, as it were (which also served to prevent the bird from swallowing its catch, if above a certain size), the Chinese cormorant fisherman let his birds roam freely, but with a ring around their throat preventing them from swallowing larger fish... to land the bird w/fish in its gullet, the Chinese cormorant fisherman would place a pole in the water underneath the cormorant, the cormorant would latch onto the pole, and then the fisherman would then lift the bird onto the boat).
Apropos the spread of fishing with cormorants throughout China, a final footnote suggests that since the Grand Canal truly became a "grand" canal proper during the Yuan (CE 1279-1368) Dynasty (it had earlier relied on stretches of the various major rivers of southern China, such as the Yellow, the Huai and the Yangtze Rivers), and since, toward the middle of the Ming Dynasty, the empire's capital moved from Nanking (present-day Nanjing) to present-day Beijing (Dadu, during the Yuan period), people from the south began to migrate northward along the Grand Canal in search of employment opportunities that were opening up rapidly, thanks to the canal, and thus the art & science of fishing with cormorants may gradually have been spread from the Three Gorges area to the rest of the empire.
TOPThe Distribution of Cormorant Fishing in Present-Day China
Today, there are only a handful of places in China where fishing with the help of cormorants is still practiced, and even in these places, the primary purpose would seem not to be for the fishing itself, but rather, the entertainment value it offers to the tourist – as in the seal, sea lion and killer whale (Orca) performances/ shows at aqua parks). It is quite possible that fishing with cormorants in China was never that widespread, even after its Ming Dynasty spread, for it requires the simultaneous presence of two crucial conditions: an abundance of fishes, and relatively shallow water, and of course the technique of fishing with cormorants would have to have been known.
The "fishery" would naturally also have to be of a certain magnitude to make it worth the cormorant fisher's while. On the other hand, we know from many historical sources that in the not so distant past, our lakes and rivers the world over held healthy populations of fishes of many kinds before pollution began to decimate their numbers, not only directly but also indirectly, via the detrimental, if not catastrophic, effect of pollution on the food chain on which fish depend.
In the following, a handful of sites where fishing with cormorants is still practiced will be highlighted. It should also be said that in some of the places highlighted below, the fishing is genuine, i.e., it is not just for show.
Lake Baiyangdian (Baoding) – is a vast wetlands area about 2 hours travel south of Beijing, and about 30 kilometers almost due east of the city of Baoding. The area consists of numerous lakes (143 of them in fact, some large, some small), marshes and fishing villages (70), with many of the lakes being interconnected. Though rather drab to view during winter, Baiyangdian comes to life, thanks chiefly to its blossoming water lilies and lotuses, during the summer. Indeed, the name, Bai-yang dian, means "white ocean of marshes" (dian means, literally, "shallow water", which could of course also describe a lake). Lake Baiyangdian is very much an active fishery, unlike certain other localities mentioned below, where, instead of genuine fishing, the tourist is witness to "the cormorant fishing show".
Fig 9: A Lake Baiyangdian Cormorant Fisherman – Note the Reeds Along the Shore
Fig 10: Another Lake Baiyangdian Cormorant Fisherman at Work
Fig 11: Harvesting Lotus Floweres On Lake Baiyangdian
Fig 12: A Pram Tour Through the Lotus Beds of Lake Baiyangdian
Fig 13: An Artist's Rendering of a Typical Cormorant Fishing Scene
from China's Famous Water Towns of the Suzhou Area
Fig 14: Fishing with Cormorants at Zhouzhang Water Town
Fig 15: Fishing with Cormorants at Tongli Water Town
Fig 16: Fishing with Cormorants at Luzhi Water Town
Fig 17: The Stunningly Beautiful Li River & Mountainous Backdrop Near Yangshuo
Fig 18: Cormorant Fisherman Readying His Boat
for the Evening Fishing at Luzhi Water Town
Fig 19: Idyllic Cormorant Fishing Scene on the Li River at Yangshuo
TOPThe Future Of Fishing With Cormorants In China
Fig 20: A Reed-Lined, Lotus and Lily Covered Lake at Baiyangdian
Fig 21: Cormorant Fishermen at Dusk on the Li River near Yangshuo
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