Cormorant Fishing An ancient Art

I first read about cormorant fishing many years ago in Peter Matthiessen's book "The Birds of Heaven", a book about cranes and their habitats. He briefly described the technique and the rapid loss of habitat for birds in general in fast growing China. It triggered my desire to visit these remote places and see for myself.

Fishing with cormorants was learned in China sometime during the Tang dynasty (CE 618-907) and also in Japan at about the same time. It is a well over a thousand-year-old practice, never wide-spread in China, but now only practiced in very few areas.

Fisherman on bamboo raft.

Fishermen use trained cormorants to fish the rivers and shallow lakes. In China mainly the Black Cormorant (or Great Cormorant) is employed. Cormorants don’t have glands to oil their feathers, but a fatty layer under their skin that provides all the insulation the bird requires.

While this means they are less buoyant than other fishing birds, and weaker swimmers and weaker flyers, it makes them great divers. Cormorants swim 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.

Of the cormorant fishing areas in China, Lake Baiyangdian (Baoding) is probably the best known - a vast wetlands area about two hours south of Beijing, consisting of numerous lakes, marshes and fishing villages, with many of the lakes being interconnected. The other main area, and the one I had a chance to visit, is on the Li River near Guilin in Southern China's Guangxi province. As in Baoding, the primary purpose is not so much fishing itself anymore, but rather the entertainment value it offers to tourists.

Majestic carst mountains and Li River view from Xianggong (Husband Hill) near Yangshuo, Guangxi Province.
Scenic Li River near Yangshuo

We were based in Yangshuo, a charming small town near the city of Guilin, along the scenic Li River. Running between the majestic carst mountains, the Li River is quite broad in this area, and its surface is, for the most part, rather placid. Fishing with cormorants near Yangshuo is mainly nighttime fishing, where the fishermen equip their boats with lanterns that both provide light for them to see what they are doing and to attract the curious fish.

Splashing water to attract fish.

The process is simple: The fisherman first ties a snare near the base of the bird's throat, which effectively prevents them from swallowing larger fish, although they can still swallow some smaller fish. Then the fisherman tries to attract fish buy lighting his lantern and at the same time beating the water with his paddle. Then the bird dives into the water. When a cormorant catches a fish, the fisherman then brings the bird back to the boat and has it spit the fish up onto the bamboo deck.

As soon as the bird catches a fish, the fisherman lifts him out of the water and takes the fish away from him.

Cormorants need frequent rest on a solid surface to dry their wings. Most fishermen therefore have several birds on their raft and rotate them to fish, giving the others time to rest and dry their feathers. Lack of buoyancy is also the reason why cormorants often occupy piers, pylons, and other elevated places near the shore.

Time to rest and dry the wings
Fisherman and birds heading to work
Traditional straw rain cape and hat

While these fishermen are still able to earn an income by fishing and posing for tourists, their children aspire a more urban life, higher education, and well paying jobs. The art of fishing with cormorants is unfortunately a dying one. I am grateful that I had a chance to experience it.

Resting by the shore.


All images by Hilda Champion