The thirteen-hundred-year-old Asian technique of Ukai, cormorant fishing for human benefit, survives only as a tourist attraction today, but its uniqueness makes it well worth preserving. Cormorants catch fish by diving underwater, where they swim with agility and grace equal to that of their fish prey.Cormorant fishing is believed to have been invented in the uplands of China, where it was useful in catching fish from narrow, fast-flowing streams. It spread from there and is celebrated in Manyoshu, Japan’s most ancient poetry anthology, dating to the eight century. It also was used in Korea and India. Japanese Fishermen operated mainly at night, quite the opposite of stillwater fishing, with tethered birds under the glow of torchlights, whereas Chinese fishermen worked in daylight with free-swimming birds. Hindus especially appreciated this form of fishing, because their religion prohibits the direct killing of living creatures, but not the eating of fish killed by birds.
Cormorant Fishing in Japan
Cormorant fishing is still practiced on Japan’s Nagara and Li Rivers. It is done at night under the light of torches, usually with twelve feathered accomplices. Much training is involved in preparing cormorants to fish in the service of man, but when accomplished, an individual bird may work for twenty years. The best cormorants are those raised from hatching by the master, who often tends young birds every two to three hours, talking to them and rubbing them gently make them more tame. The Japanese fisher-man called an Usho, manages a flock that may number ten or more. Each cormorants is fitted with a leashlike cord around its neck, which blocks captured fish from passing down its gullet. Once the bird catches a fish, The Usho uses a bamboo pole to snare a string tied to the cormorants legs, then grabs it by the neck and forces it to eject the fish into a bucket.
Military discipline among the cormorants is enforced, with the birds trained to line up in the same order on the edge of the boat. The fisherman also pays attention to their personalities, placing only compatible birds together in transport baskets. When done correctly, tamed cormorants are fishing machines: efficient birds may catch up to 150 fish per hour.
The cormorants employed around the world were not all of the same species, of which more than two dozen are known to exist. In Japan, four kinds were used, but principally two imported Chinese cormorants species. Whereas in other countries young cormorants had to be caught, the Chinese had great success in breeding them.
Introduction to Europe
Cormorants fishing apparently was introduced into Europe as a sport during the seventeenth century. An Imagine exists of Charles II reclining on a barge, surrounded by young ladies, watching a troupe of trained cormorants catching fish for the party. But the Europeans put a western twist on the technique. Rather than using a leash, they manned the birds as they did hawks with the bird being trained to fly to the fist. After the cormorants caught a fish, the tender “made in” to the bird, holding out his arm, and then ran his closed hand up the birds neck, forcing it to regurgitate the fish. The cormorants was rewarded with a minnow small enough to slip past the collar.
Cormorants fishing became quite popular in Europe, especially because it could be practiced during summer, when hawks were molting and couldn’t be flown. Louis XIII kept trained cormorants at Fontainebleau and built a series of fish ponds where the birds could display their skills to the king and his court. France’s royal keeper of cormorants remained a paid position into the eighteenth century. In england, James I had ponds built a Westminster for his cormorants and trained otters. Cormorant fishing enjoyed a brief revival in the 1800s in England and France, with the French sportsmen going so far as to dress like Chinese mandarins.
In Fishing from the Earliest Times (1921), William Radcliffe cites a cruder approach involving cormorants that was practiced on India’s Brahmaputra. Wild cormorants would gather midstream and then advance together toward a bank, making a “prodigious pother” by flapping the water with their wings. The panic-stricken fish fled to the shallows and even threw themselves on land. The birds, still in close array, gorged on their penned-in prey. As soon as their feeding ceased, the villagers rushed to the bank and used drums, gongs, and other noisemakers to frighten the cormorants. Too heavy from gorging themselves to fly, the birds had to lighten themselves of most of their meals, which were snatched by the less than-discriminating peasants.