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Sitting quietly on a bamboo raft, with his birds at his side, the man listens to the gentle splashing as water laps at the side of his craft. The light of a flaming lantern illuminates the scene – in Guilin, in the Chinese province of Guangxi.
Cormorant fishing is an age-old art practiced in China and Japan (as well as a few other countries) that is long past its glory days. Today, it exists largely due to the tourism industry, but is no less intriguing for that fact.
Dressed in traditional clothing, the fisherman slowly paddles out to his chosen spot on Guangxi’s Li River, his raft lit by a single lantern that is suspended at one end of the craft. The light on the raft enables the man to see what he is doing but also serves to attract the fish.
It's an interesting and intimate – if somewhat exploitative – relationship between man and bird. A string, line or collar of some sort is placed around the cormorant's neck to stop it from swallowing large fish, although it is still able to gulp down smaller fry.
Often, the birds have their flight feathers clipped so that they cannot fly away, a practice that some might view as cruel. The fisherman uses a pole as a means of tending to, and controlling, the cormorants. He dunks them in the water, prompting the birds to dive down to fish, and then retrieves them when they have returned to the surface.
Back on the boat, the cormorants are made to spit out the large fish they have caught which are trapped in their throats. However, the birds do get something out of the bargain: they’re given scraps of fish that are often hand-fed to them after their work is done.
The fisherman and his cormorants toil through the night. Then, as dawn breaks, the man gathers up his catch and returns to shore as the majestic limestone cliffs of the landscape gradually materialize out of the gloom. After landing, he will be able to sell the fish – large quantities of which can be caught – at a local market.
Cormorant fishing is a 1,300-year-old tradition that has changed very little through the ages. It used to be the way many made their living and was a thriving industry in its own right. Today, it has been superseded by new fishing technologies, though tourists get to enjoy the ritual – not to mention the beautiful surrounding scenery and ambiance of the whole affair.
Despite – and because of – the gaze of outsiders, cormorant fishing retains the same traditional elements that have characterized it for thousands of years. In China, the fishermen still use rafts constructed from lengths of bamboo (in Japan, the three-person Ubune boat is used). The fisherman himself is a man who has spent his life working with his birds on the water, and the birds have been well trained to give up the big fish they so expertly catch.
With cormorant fishing as it is practiced in China, the fishermen are known to work with up to 30 birds – although, as shown here, the number can be as little as one or two. In Japan, on the other hand, three-man crews on the Ubune boats fish with ten to twelve cormorants. One of the fish they go after in Japan is known as sweetfish (or ayu), which are highly prized in East Asia.
Cormorant fishing truly is a sight to behold, a look back at the sunsets of centuries past when this was one of the major methods by which people subsisted. Handed down from generation to generation, the tradition may seem antiquated by today’s standards, nevertheless it survives in moonlit waters like those of the River Li.