In the backlit skies above Erhai Lake, a century’s old ballet of sky and water takes place each morning.
The lake, located at the end of the Burma Road in Dali, which is situated in the Yunnan Province of southern China, is dotted daily with the bamboo rafts and the small craft of fisherman like Yang Ze En, who makes his living on the waters. As En and men like him have been doing for generations, they ply their trade and perhaps now even more importantly, play to the delighted tourists who travel for miles to witness their traditional and extraordinary methods in action. Because unlike commercial fisherman who rely on poles, nets, trawlers and cages to fill their boats, the men who sit each dawn in the lapping waters of Erhai Lake use a more organic technique: Cormorants.
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.
The process, though seemingly cruel, is simple. A ring or straw rope is placed around the bird’s neck, effectively barring them from swallowing any catch above a certain size. When a fish is caught, the bird, unable to eat, delivers the catch to its fisherman who then prizes the fish from the cormorant’s beak. Because the birds’ natural feeding patterns are restricted, they are reliant upon their owners to feed them, usually with smaller fish that are able to bypass the rope, though sometimes the rope is removed as a reward, allowing the cormorant to swallow its larger catch. The birds are reared from birth, and usually trained for a half year or more, often by older, more experienced cormorants, before they are allowed to fish.
At times the more experienced cormorants sit, regal, at the prow of the boat, supervising their students. Overfishing of the lakes and the cost of upkeep, which often outweighs profit, has contributed to the slow death of the tradition. Often the birds are sold or killed when they become too expensive to maintain. Tourism supplements the cormorant fisherman’s income, but the continuation of the tradition remains in question. Of the once many fishing families few are left who still practice the art. For Yang Ze En, the tradition will likely die with him. Though his family has been fishing with cormorants for generations, En’s only child, a son, has already decided he will not use his father’s boat or his cormorants to carry on.
Pictures: Paul Banks