Cormorants Fishing in China

Sitting in a big boat, sailing slowly in the river, watching the local fisherman standing with his well-trained cormorants on the traditional bamboo raft with lanterns, you will see the released cormorants( tethered on the raft by a rope while not working) dive into the water and track the schools of fish which thrive in the clear river water.

Once a cormorant caught a fish, he returns to the bamboo raft where the fisherman removes the catch. A ring, around the bird's neck, prevents the cormorant from swallowing any of its catch. The fisherman will, however, reward his faithful companion. This is an unusual and highly popular method of fishing along the Li River.

In the course of human development, many early "technologies" (inventions that facilitated hunting, farming, food preparation (e.g., fire), etc.) were discovered or found in different parts of the world at roughly the same time (i.e., about 5,000 years ago). However, these are technologies that belong to ancient times.

On the other hand, technologies that later existed almost simultaneously in different cultures came into contact with each other. It is likely that they were the result of discoveries in only one culture, which then spread to another culture.

Although the possibility that these discoveries occurred independently cannot be completely ruled out. (Even in modern times, scientific discovery was made by two scientists working completely independently and without knowledge of each other's research. Such as many Nobel prizes. )

Therefore, it is most likely that the art and science of fishing with cormorants was studied in both Japan and China during the Chinese Tang Dynasty (CE 618-907). And the Japanese passed this discovery to the Chinese and vice versa.

Since the first historical mention of fishing with cormorants came from Japan. We will make a preliminary assumption that cormorant fishing may have originated in Japan.

 It is also because the Tang Dynasty was a time of close cultural contact between China and Japan. There, most new inventions and cultural innovations (including the spread of Buddhism to Japan in a major way) were actually spearheaded by the Chinese.

Given this relationship, it seems only fair that praise is given where it is due. Moreover, as noted, the first historical reference to fishing with cormorants appears to be Japanese. So, we magnanimously acknowledge that it was probably the Japanese, cousins of the Chinese, who "domesticated" the cormorant.

Most Chinese cormorant fishermen either operate alone or have only one assistant. This is true at least today, although in the past when fish were more plentiful and loomed larger in the diet, there is more crew.

A highly systematic crew of Japanese cormorant fishermen. The common Japanese cormorant, the one that fishes in Japan, is the Japanese cormorant (Phalacrocorax capillatus). It is slightly smaller than the common Chinese cormorant (described in the next section).

The "Chinese" Cormorant, and What Makes It a Good Fisher

The most common Chinese cormorant is the Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo), or Common Cormorant, aka the Black Cormorant. P.carbo is sometimes referred to simply as the Fish Hawk, or the osprey.

There are several species of cormorants in the world. Other smaller cormorants are also found in Japan and China. But the cormorant used for fishing is the Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo.

Not all Phalacrocorax carbo is "black as carbon". As the name implies, some are lightly feathered, especially on the chest and neck), or are its close relative, the Japanese Cormorant.

There are many reasons why the cormorant has become such a successful fisherman. In particular, the ease with which it dives (which is also related to the bird's Achilles' heel, as shown below).

The cormorant is a strange bird because it does not oil its feathers. It does not secrete oil for this purpose. In fact, it does not have the necessary glands. The advantage of birds with oily feathers is that they provide a way to keep out the cold.

Because oily feathers keep the bird's feathers from getting wet, they can also protect against heat. To compensate for this lack of extra insulation, cormorants have a layer of fat under their skin.

This fat layer provides it with all the insulation the bird needs. And its aquatic diet provides the bird with all the fat intake needed to maintain the insulating layer beneath the bird's skin.

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 birds dive like a kamikaze 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).

Cormorants have no such problems with diving or swimming. In fact, underwater, cormorants swim almost like otters, seals, or other marine animals. This is why cormorants can swim to the bottom of a lake at a depth of 20 meters.

In the space of just a few minutes, the beak returns with fish in it. This is the case with seagulls. Can not even dive 20 meters before the oxygen supply is depleted and the bird must return to the surface.

Makes an Aerial (Kamikaze) Dive

Because the cormorant lacks preening oil, its feathers get wet. That's why it must periodically "air dry" itself. That's 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 : ).

Cormorants will perch on the stakes left on the beach. These stakes used to be the borders of fishing nets or belonged to a pier that was demolished long ago. If the reader can forgive the poetic license.

Cormorants like to occupy such positions, either to stretch their wings or just to rest a bit. The latter is because the cormorant is not a very good flier.

Its wings are sleek and more designed to offer little resistance when slammed against its body underwater. (The lack of finishing oils in its feathers may also negatively affect the bird's ability to fly. In fact, cormorants usually rarely fly a meter above the water to reduce wind resistance).

They also do not perch well on the water surface due to a lack of buoyancy.

If one stays around such a set of remaining stakes long enough (as sport fishermen often do), he will inevitably observe a brief challenge between a new cormorant and an "incumbent". The incumbent has usually driven away.

How does the newcomer decide which incumbent has the longest/driest position? Maybe the new guy just randomly chooses his victims. But the newcomer may be able to decide which incumbent is the "driest".

That is, suppose the driest bird knows that it is time to give his perch to the newcomer. He may also know that the other assembled birds know this as well.

Perhaps they have communicated among themselves about the first-in, first-out pecking order, i.e., which bird is there the longest, second longest, etc.

Perhaps the driest bird knows that the assembled flock is even willing to help the newcomer get rid of it if it gets into trouble. Cormorants are apparently smarter than one might think. As shown below. Although this may be purely coincidental.

Although the Great Cormorant can dive to a depth of 30 meters if necessary. But it prefers to dive in shallow water (up to 1 minute underwater).

There it can find plenty of small fish (and occasionally some larger ones), crustaceans, and aquatic insects. This is probably the most common and fish-like diet.

A Brief History of Cormorant Fishing in China

In the introduction, it is suggested that the origin of fishing with cormorants was Japan.

At the same time, there is another evidence, or, arguably, a lack of evidence-that fishing with cormorants was not common in China (indeed, it may have been restricted to the  Sichuan-Hubei area) before the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD).

It must be said, but, that the evidence in this regard 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 other hand, we note Marco Polo. He traveled to China many times. He mentions all kinds of novelties he encountered in China. For a European, it's a strange and exotic country. He never mentions a phenomenon of the art of cormorant fishing.

In other words, if Marco Polo had observed such a novel phenomenon. He would certainly have written about it. So the fact that he did not mention this unique miracle in his travels in China. It shows that this brave traveler did not observe it.

To strengthen the case against, the other famous Italian traveler of the period, Odoric of Pordenone, who traveled in China a generation later than had Marco Polo.  His real name was Odorico Mattiussi  (CE ca.1286-1331)). He didn't mention the phenomenon itself. Though he did mention "fishing" cormorants.

As the chart shows, Marco Polo traveled in China for a long time (between 1270 and 1280 AD).  served as a trade liaison in the emperor's government, while Odoric traveled in China for only about six years, from 1323 AD to 1328 AD.

According to his own description, Odoric was once taken to a location to observe something that was reputed to be unique. Namely, cormorants catching fish, albeit only for themselves!

The novelty of it was apparent that the site was so rich in fish that the birds would feed on them and ignore the presence of humans.

This is the same way that grizzly bears (usually quite shy about being with humans) would feed on salmon spawning in Alaskan rivers, surrounded by tourists.

However, the exact location where Odoric witnessed it would forever remain a mystery. But Odoric did add that it was "a city" located on "some big river".

According to Odoric 's itinerary, the city is believed to be located in southern China, between Hangzhou City, Zhejiang Province, and Fuzhou City, Fujian Province, about 450 kilometers.

The significance of this event is that had the "domestication" of cormorants. That is, the use of cormorants to catch fish for humans has 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.

A generation after Marco Polo's visit, Odoric did not watch the live performance of "cormorants fishing for humans". This fact reinforces such a notion.

Fishing with cormorants was certainly not a widespread phenomenon in China during this period. Even though it may have been in more remote areas of Sichuan Province. Perhaps it was found in Hubei Province.

Another historical "con" evidence that highlights the absence of cormorants in the fishing culture of pre-Ming China is the reference to cormorants in the official CE 1249 Song Dynasty Pharmacopoeia (Materia Medica, Latin, or "Medical Annals").

It states that the dung or guano of cormorants was used as medicine. That's it! Again, if cormorants were used to catch fish for humans, this would certainly be emphasized in CE 1249, Song Dynasty Pharmacopoeia.

In fact, this did not further strengthen such an argument. Namely, the use of cormorants to catch fish was not a common phenomenon in China. If true, it was not even known before it became quite common before Ming Dynasty.

On the pro side–this evidence is in fact rather week. Because it has different interpretations.  And the opposing side lists the absence of the phenomenon of human fishing with the help of cormorants.

The poet Du Fu of the Tang Dynasty is considered to have the following couplet:

"Every household keeps cormorants,

There is fish with every meal."

The Du Fu Quotations (ce712-70) were first printed in the late 16th century in the Materia Medica. The book was authored by Li Shizhen, a thoroughly researched scholar.

This suggests two things: since no other writer or artist has mentioned this practice (others would have mentioned it after Li Shizhen published his Selected Writings), it can be assumed that there is no other such source.

Moreover, since Du Fu mentions this practice in his couplet, it must be true. What remains unresolved is where exactly the practice of this novel method of fishing took place. That is, where did the poet observe this practice - which part of which province did Du Fu visit?

Since we know from other sources mentioned above that fishing with cormorants was not common in China before the Ming Dynasty. However, Du Fu's couplet suggests that somewhere in China, cormorants were widely used for fishing.

One can only conclude that if both hypotheses are considered to be true. Then Du Fu must be talking about a specific region in the country, perhaps Sichuan or Hubei Province. There is speculation that this practice may have existed since the Tang Dynasty.

Du Fu is known to have spent time in the Three Gorges area of the Yangtze River, or what is now the city of Chongqing. The city of Chongqing used to be part of Sichuan province.

So this all seems to point to the conclusion that two hypotheses may indeed be true. The "every household" to which the poet refers in the above couplet are all households in the area where the Three Gorges Dam is located today.

Of course, this opens up another closet of skeletons that needs to be explained. If cormorants fishing was a cultural phenomenon imported from Japan, why was it not more common in China? Why was it practiced in a remote corner of the empire like Sichuan?

A possible satisfying answer to the latter question is that a monk from the Three Gorges area visited Japan, where he ran across the practice while proselytizing there.

At that time, he learned the art and science of cormorants fishing from his Japanese hosts and then brought it back home. There he was lucky enough to replicate what he had learned in Japan in his native PhalacrocaraxCarbo cormorant.

The imaginary scenario is definitely not implausible. For this is the nature of contact between monks of a particular monastery in one country and monks of a particular "sister" monastery in another.

There is another possible satisfactory answer. During the Tang Dynasty, someone in the Sichuan Province of China had an idea in his head. He wanted to see if he could "domesticate" cormorants to catch fish for humans.

Although it cannot be ruled out, it is not very likely. But if true, it would explain why this phenomenon is not common in China.

Here on the "pro" side, note that while the Japanese cormorant fisherman in Gifu City keeps his bird on a leash (which also helps prevent the bird from swallowing the catch if it exceeds a certain size.

The Chinese cormorant fisherman let his birds roam free, but with a ring around their throats to prevent them from swallowing larger fish.

To keep the bird down by the mouth, the Chinese fisherman will place a pole in the water below the cormorant. The cormorant would latch onto the pole, and then the fisherman would then lift the bird onto the boat.

The last footnote on the spread of fishing with cormorants throughout China shows that the Grand Canal really became a "big" canal during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368 AD).

It was earlier dependent on the extension of the major rivers in southern China, such as the Yellow, Huai, and the Yangtze, the capital of the empire was moved from Nanking (now Nanjing) to Beijing (Dadu, during the Yuan Dynasty) in the middle of the Ming Dynasty.

Southerners began to migrate northward along the Grand Canal in search of rapidly opening employment opportunities. Thanks to the canal. Thus, the art and science of fishing with cormorants may have gradually spread from the Three Gorges region to other parts of the empire.

The Distribution of Cormorant Fishing in Present-Day China

Today, there are only a few places in China where cormorants are still used for fishing.

Even in these places, the main purpose does not seem to be for the fishing itself. Rather, it is to provide entertainment value to visitors, like seals, sea lions, and Orcas (killer whales) perform/show at aqua parks.

Most likely, fishing with cormorants has never been so common in China. Even after the spread of the Ming Dynasty, as it required the presence of two key conditions at the same time. Plenty of fish and relatively shallow waters.

Of course, the technique of fishing with cormorants had to be known.

Naturally, the "fishery" had to be of a certain size to make it worthwhile for cormorant fishermen to visit.

On the other hand, we know from many historical sources that in the not too distant past, before pollution began to destroy fish populations directly or indirectly through harmful (if not catastrophic) effects, our lakes and rivers around the world held healthy populations of many species of fish.

The impact of pollution on the food chain on which fish depend for their survival.

In the following, a handful of sites where cormorant fishing 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. It's about 30 kilometers almost due east of the city of Baoding. The area consists of many lakes (143), swamps, and fishing villages (70). Many lakes are interconnected.

Baiyangdian has a monotonous view in winter. But in summer, mainly due to the blooming water lilies and lotus flowers, Baiyangdian comes to life. In fact, the name Baiyangdian means "white ocean of marshes". (Dian literally means "shallow water", but of course it can also describe a lake).

Baiyangdian is a very active fishing area. Unlike some of the other places mentioned below, visitors there do not really fish, but witness a "cormorant fishing show".

Most of the cormorant fishing activity in Baiyangdian (full name) occurs in the early morning.  This is a time when the fewest tourists are up. But there is also a late afternoon sit-in where there are few fishermen on the lake.

But the presence there of curious tourists is calculated to mix. So this is the best time to observe the Baiyangdian cormorant fishing show without being in serious trouble for fishermen.

The expansion and contraction of all wetlands depend on the season. It also depends on the amount of rainfall in any given year. At its peak, Baiyangdian covered an area of about 360 square kilometers.

Today, due to climate change and other demands on wetland waters, Baiyangdian's new peak spans only 2/3 of its former maximum of 240 square kilometers.

The bad news is that the climate trend indicates that the marsh will continue to shrink unless the authorities take steps to reverse this pattern. The government is acutely aware of the problem and is considering its options.

With better management, experts say, the negative trend could be reversed. Even though the swamp may never reach its previous maximum size.

The world knows that when the Chinese government sets its mind to something, it can usually get the job done in record time. In fact, the Chinese government recently announced a billion-dollar effort to clean up Baiyangdian.

However, even if Baiyangdian Lake is improved, it is unlikely that the cormorant fishery will be saved. This is because no one but the current group of cormorant fishermen is interested in continuing this tradition.

All over China, young people are turning away from traditional occupations that offer, at best, the opportunity to make a minimal living. Today's young people are committed to progress, which means getting an education in the cities and graduating to well-paying jobs in the new economy.

However, if the cormorant fishing tradition in Baiyangdian can earn a substantial income. Especially if it can be combined with other more challenging tasks that are closely linked to the new economy - perhaps conservation - then perhaps there is a way to preserve Baiyangdian's cormorant fishing tradition?

That is, the typical future cormorant fishermen of Baiyangdian might be a group of young biologists. Their expertise helps protect the wetlands, but they spend several hours each afternoon fishing with the help of cormorants to the delight of the audience.

Lake Baiyangdian is more than a cormorant fishery and a cormorant fishing show. It is also a shrimp and crayfish fishery, where the practice of duck farming is beginning to take its toll on the lake's shrimp population.

(Because ducks eat shrimp, the lake's duck eggs are prized for their orange-red yolks. Although in the recent past, the colorful yolks began to fade. Because of both industrial, agricultural and residential pollution. The red pigment in most crustaceans (including shrimp in particular) is called astaxanthin.)

The marsh reed (common reed, or reed, sometimes called a reed, hence its English name) is "harvested" here, as are the lotus and water lilies of the marsh. These are used for various decorations, mainly in the homes of villagers in the swamp.

Reed is mainly used to make mats (Baiyangdian Lake has a thriving cottage industry). But they are also used in the construction industry for roofing and fence building. And they are also made into pulp to produce special types of fibrous paper.

The reeds are also a natural habitat for many insects, making them a popular hunting ground for many terrestrial and aquatic birds.

But most importantly, the unassuming reed is one of nature's own cleaning filters. It does this by trapping organic matter and absorbing industrial pollutants, such as ammonium nitrate. Helps purify the lake (more work for biologists/part-time cormorant fishermen?).

(Note, however, that whenever the reed occurs in non-native biota. In the US, for example, where the reed is popular elsewhere, it dominates. So much so that it crowds out native plants and is therefore considered a pest. And a rather nasty pest, as it is very difficult to eradicate.)

The water towns in the Suzhou area - a swampy area about 15 kilometers southeast of Suzhou City, Jiangsu Province - are dotted with lakes of all sizes. Not all the water towns support cormorant fisheries. In fact, only about half of them do.

from China's Famous Water Towns of the Suzhou Area

Instead of describing the cormorant fisheries in these towns, mainly because they make up only a small part of the tourist attractions in the water towns under discussion.

(They offer visitors more than just fishing with cormorants. One might reasonably argue that their respective cormorant fisheries are just the cherry on top of the icing on the cake. In fact, rather than being cormorant fisheries, they are fishing shows performed specifically to please tourists).

We'll turn to links to questionable towns on the water. Readers are urged to explore the tourist experience of these unique and fascinating water towns with their very special ambiance.

Oops! We don't yet have an article on Luzhi Water Town but as soon as we do, we'll link to it here. Note that Luzhi Water Town is not far from Tongli Water Town.

So when visiting the latter, it is recommended to pay a visit to the former as well (but we expect to write that article on the very charming Luzhi Water Town very soon!).

Yangshuo (Li River) - is a small town near the city of Guilin, along the majestic Li River. Even in English sources, it is often referred to as the Li River. Jiang in Chinese means "river".

(The shorter the name of a river or lake or other natural feature, the more likely it is that the Chinese word for the natural feature will be included. Although there are some notable exceptions, such as the Changjiang River, which is another name for the Yangtze).

Near the town of Yangshuo, the Li River is quite broad and its surface is, for the most part, rather placid. Fishing with cormorants here is more genuine fishing than show. Though it contains an element of the show for those who wish to witness it.

Whereas cormorants fishing on the Li River in Guilin (this is a special boat tour around Greater Guilin, which is an absolute MUST for those interested in the karst caves and which includes a trip to the city's two main lakes, Cedar Lake and Lake Banyan) is mostly for show.

It takes place during the day and night. Cormorant fishing near Yangshuo is mainly nighttime fishing. The fishermen there equip their boats with lanterns. It both provides light for them to see what they are doing and tends to attract the curious fish.

for the Evening Fishing at Luzhi Water Town

The typical cormorant fishing procedure on the Li River, both at Guilin and at Yangshuo, is for the fishermen to form a circle (or an ellipse) with their boats and then to fish the encirclement.

Daytime fishermen might beat the water with their oars as a way to attract fish. Once the fish begin to make their presence felt, the birds begin to dive after them.

Since there are several boats fishing as a team, there is always action at one of the boats. The cormorant fishing spectacle at Guilin lasts for about an hour. It might last longer at Yangshuo since the fishing there is the real thing, one might say.

The Future Of Fishing With Cormorants In China

Unless something dramatic happens to save this rather ancient form of fishing, it will die out with the contemporary cormorant fishermen. Fishermen say they want their children to be educated. Because there is no future for the livelihood of cormorant fishermen.

Cormorant fishing has become extinct in some places and is in danger of disappearing in others. And as we saw above, in many other places it has been reduced to a pastime for tourists.

For example, less than 10 years ago, Beijingers could experience it at nearby Jingshan Lake, but now the fishery has disappeared altogether.

Similarly, the practice of fishing with cormorants is dying out on Lake Erhai. It threatens to die out on Lake Baiyangdian unless something is done soon to reverse the pollution trend there.

It is also exacerbated by global climatic changes. (Anytime one has a given level of pollution and the body of water begins to shrink dramatically. This naturally increases the degree of pollution for the body of water in question).

But as indicated above, if the Chinese state sets its mind to a project, the whole world knows that a dramatic turnaround is possible

Perhaps, as mentioned above, the future cormorant fisherman - a part-time cormorant fisherman - will also be a full-time biologist. Working for the state as a conservationist.

Given that this ancient and fascinating custom is 1,000-1,300 years old, it would be a shame if it were to disappear - or almost worse, be reduced to an entertaining sideshow for tourists.

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