Tradition dying as fishermen lose their feathered 'fellows'
Over the vast, misty Poyang Lake, Yuan Guosheng wears a raincoat and a straw hat while pushing his boat into the water using a small bamboo stick. On the boat stand his 21 black “fellows” — cormorants.
“The birds are traditionally used by local fishermen like me to help catch fish,” said Yuan, 45, in Kangshan Township in eastern China’s Jiangxi Province. “My 21 ‘fellows’ have been with me for many years and the oldest has been fishing with me for almost two decades.”
Cormorant fishing is an ancient way of catching fish on Poyang Lake, China’s largest freshwater lake and a tributary of the Yangtze River’s middle and lower reaches, with a history of about 1,000 years. Ancient poets even wrote poems singing praises of the fishing scene.
The old skill, however, is losing charm, driven away by modern technology and a national fishing ban.
This month, China began a 10-year fishing ban on key areas of the Yangtze River to protect biodiversity in the country’s longest waterway.
The moratorium forms part of a key move fighting depleting biological resources and degrading biodiversity along the river, plagued by human activities such as overfishing, pollution and damming.
This means cormorant fishing faces a difficult future.
Retiring the cormorants
Two decades ago, more than 20 families were still using the black-feathered birds for fishing.
“Compared with modern technology, cormorant fishing has a lot of disadvantages,” Yuan said. “The birds are difficult to raise and have low efficiency in catching fish, and that’s partly why many people do not want to raise them anymore.”
“Raising cormorants is a technical thing,” said Xu Fuhua, 52, an inheritor of the cormorant fishing tradition. “You should feed the baby birds with chopped fish and make great efforts to train them in how to catch fish.”
Ten years ago, the provincial government listed cormorant fishing on its intangible cultural heritage list. But only nine families in the township still keep them — 153 birds.
“We are quite attached to these little birds. They are like family,” Yuan said.
He and villagers support the ban but worry over the future of the birds and the tradition.
Given that the 153 cormorants do not pose a threat to the environment, the government allows the fishermen to continue temporarily in designated waters.
“I used to raise cormorants myself, so I understand their feelings,” said local official Zou Xiongchun. “There is a special bonding between people and the birds, and it is also important to pass down the tradition.”