Yuan Guosheng was fishing on Poyang Lake, Jan. 9, 2020, in east China's Jiangxi province. (Xinhua/Yu Gang)

Cormorant fishing in troubled waters as fishing ban takes effect

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:” the cormorants.

“The birds are traditionally used by local fishermen like me to help catch fish,” said Yuan, 45, a fisherman 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. The technique used to make quite a scene at the lake, and ancient Chinese poets even wrote poems singing praises of the fishing scene.

The old fishing skill, however, is losing charm in modern times, driven away by modern technology and a national fishing ban.

Earlier 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 fishing moratorium forms part of a key move fighting depleting biological resources and degrading biodiversity in the Yangtze River, plagued by human activities such as overfishing, pollution and damming, said Vice Minister of Agriculture and Rural Affairs Yu Kangzhen.

This means cormorant fishing will face more difficulties in the future.

Two decades ago, more than 20 fishing families were still using the black-feathered birds for fishing in the locality, according to Yuan.

“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. However, only nine families in the township currently still keep cormorants. Together with Yuan, they have 153 cormorants.

“We are quite attached to these little birds. They are like family,” Yuan said.

For the lastest fishing ban, Yuan and his villagers have voiced support, but they frown over the future of the birds, as well as the fishing tradition.

Under such circumstances, Yuan turned to village official Zou Xiongchun for help.

“I used to raise cormorants myself, so I understand their feelings,” Zou said. “There is a special bonding between people and the birds, and it is also important to pass down the tradition.”

Local officials reported the case to the county government, who replied by saying that it is both important to protect the environment as well as the fishing tradition.

Given that the 153 cormorants will not pose a threat to the environment, the government allows the fishermen to continue cormorant fishing temporarily in designated waters.

Meanwhile, a tourist attraction near the lake is pointing to a bright future for local fishermen.

“We are developing eco-tourism based on the beautiful scenery and the fishing tradition of Poyang Lake,” said local Party official Luo Yangbin. “After the tourist attraction is completed, we will invite the fishermen to perform cormorant fishing skills, which will not only help them earn money, but also pass down the old tradition.”