A Bird-Brained Way to Fish

People have been fishing for centuries. Traditionally, most fishermen use fishing rods, small nets, or even sticks with string to catch dinner for themselves and their communities. While commercial fisheries have developed much more efficient methods of capturing sea creatures, the seemingly antiquated methods are still a large part of the outdoorsy culture throughout the world. But in some areas, there’s a much different, also antiquated tradition — one which eschews the use of poles and nets in favor of birds called cormorants. Cormorants are coastal birds which can be found throughout most of the world. Their diets consist mainly of fish, small eels, and water snakes, and while they typically do not go into deep water, they’re easily capable of diving deeper than traditional fishing equipment can reach. Cormorants don’t stay out above the water for long, either — after catching dinner, they typically return to shore or wherever else they can safely land. Well over a thousand years ago, people discovered that this mix of skills and traits could be easily exploited. Cormorants were relatively easy to approach and, to a degree, capture. Fishermen would tie a rope loosely around the cormorants’ throat and toss the bird into the river. The cormorant would dive below and come up with a mouth full of river water. It would end up swallowing smaller fish but larger fish would remain in the bird’s now-tied throat. When the bird returned to shore, the fisherman would simply help the cormorant spit up the fish — and then send the still-hungry bird out to the water to repeat the process. Fishermen ended up with a mobile, self-propelled, deep-diving fish trap.
The earliest record of what is now called “cormorant fishing” dates back to 5th century Peru, but the practice is now most common in Japan. For 1,300 years, cormorant fishing has been a traditional, May to October activity on the Nagara River in the Japanese city of Gifu. For much of that period, cormorant fishing became a booming industry in its own right, as master fisherman learned how to maximize their yields and feed many people in the surrounding areas. The legacy of this practice continues today, with the best such fisherman of yore honored with a special title, “Cormorant Fishermen of the Imperial Household Agency” — a title which is now passed on to the next generation as a regal-like birthright. As science and technology have advanced, however, cormorant fishing, including on the Nagara, has been relegated to a curiosity. It’s still common in areas where it traditionally had economic significance, but now as a tourist attraction instead of part of a the food and agriculture industries.

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