Cormorants, or fishing eagles, as they are locally referred to in places like Dali and Guilin where these traditional methods are still practiced, are large seabirds known for their voracious appetites. Not surprisingly, they are also exceptionally skillful at catching fish, using their hooked beaks to snare their prey either by diving or by swimming underwater. Somewhere along the timeline of history, man figured out how to exploit these natural fishers for his own use, and a symbiotic relationship was born.
On the surface of Erhai, you can still find a type of fishing that employs the speed and agility of the Great Cormorant to coral and obtain fish, rather than a net. A tradition handed down over the generations, Cormorant fishing in Erhai lake is still a window to the past.
A Cormorant fishing team usually consists of 2 persons, either men or women. Paddling out into the dark blue waters of Erhai lake, a group of a dozen or so trained and hungry cormorants sit still in anticipation of a possible meal on the bow of the boat.
The bird itself has a slender body, lined with dark feathers around it’s build, leading up to a furry head, and a long slender beak. Their aerodynamics lend them not only to fly through the air, but through the water also. With their hooked beak, they can snare a fish. Once the fish is in the birds grasp, there is no escape.
Older birds tend to have a darker belly, while the younger birds in the flock sport a lighter, whiter belly. The captive cormorants can live up to 25 years old, giving a healthy return on the fisherman’s investment.
What freedom they find in the water, they are put back in line by their deft masters. The cormorants are restricted from escape by two fetters. The first is that when idle, the birds are kept on a leash. They are however let off this leash to do their hunting. But the birds know that if they try to make an escape, the ring placed around the neck will render it’s mouth useless.
The ring is a safety measure taken by the fishermen to prevent a bird from swallowing a worthy fish. The bird who successfully catches a fish will be rewarded with a cut piece of fish that it can manage down it’s throat. In this way the bird is dependent on it’s master. For every 5 fish the birds catch, a whole fish is distributed to the birds.
These birds are docile, and know their place in the scheme of things. To ensure order, only cormorants that are raised in captivity are used, trained and ready to capitulate to the oarsmen’s commands.
While this method of fishing is no longer used to strictly catch fish, the tradition is being maintained for tourists in the area. One ticket from a tourist outweighs an entire days catch for a fisherman. The incentives are in place, yet the tradition, and the spirit of using a bird of prey for an economic livelihood still remain
Then the bird gazes at the point where gentle waves lap the shore of Erhai - a place where the tides of change are washing over the traditional relationship these waterfowl and inhabitants have shared for centuries.