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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Cormorant Fishing

Air Date: Week of

The age-old Chinese art of cormorant fishing may be coming to an end because of pollution, population stress and tourism. Bruce Thorson reports from the Li River in southern China.


CURWOOD: For generations Chinese fishers have used the cormorant, a dark water bird about the size of a penguin, to help them fish. Now pressures from pollution, population, and tourism are changing this relationship forever. Bruce Thorson reports from the river Li in China's southern Guangxi region.

(Splashes. A fisherman calls)

THORSON: Like his grandfather's grandfather before him, Won Jin Tsigh calls the big brown birds. He speaks to his cormorants.

(Won calls)

WON: [speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: I treat these birds like they are my own brothers. Sometimes they get moody and bite, but I still feed them. I buy them good things to eat like duck meat and honey.

THORSON: In most of the world fishermen hate cormorants. They see these expert divers as competition for fish stocks. But in China, they've long been trained to work for the fisherman.

(Won speaks)

THORSON: Won Jin Tsigh grabs one of his birds. He tightens a small rope around its neck.

(The cormorant protests)

THORSON: The bird then dives into the clear water, and Won Jin Tsigh calls to his cormorant.

(Won calls)

THORSON: Cheering it into action as it shoots under the water looking for fish.

(Won calls, cheers)

THORSON: The bird dives, surfaces, dives again. Finally, it breaks the surface with a small, silvery fish wriggling in its beak. Won Jin Tsigh pulls the bird out of the water and holds it over a basket.


THORSON: With the rope tied around its neck, the bird can't swallow the fish. With a gag, it spits the fish into the fisherman's basket.

(Splashes, sounds from Wan and the cormorant)

THORSON: On a good day his cormorants will spit out about 15 kilos of fish. They're permitted to eat just a few.

WON: [speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: When they are very young, they are like a young person with a lot of energy. The old ones have done the same job day after day, and they need the young ones to ease by them to catch fish, I cheer them on like in sport.

(Splashes; Won calls)

THORSON: The river Li bends like a giant emerald snake through the Guangxi region. Here fall the shadows of limestone mountains jutting out above rice paddies. Women scrub the family laundry on the stones beside the river. Farmers dip buckets to carry off water to the fields. And water buffalo trudge to the riverbanks to take a drink. The cormorant fishermen balance nature and commerce on shaky bamboo boats. But it's changing fast.

WON: [speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: We can't fish too much any more. Now people throw rubbish into the water. The towns dump their sewage into the river. It's poison now. There are so few fish now that I'm fishing mainly to show the tourists how it was done in the past.

(Splashing; Won calls)

THORSON: The green misty mountains of Guangxi draw increasing hordes of tourists. And cormorant fishermen are now a top attraction for local tourism.

WON: [speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: Life is better because of the tourists. We have more money even with the tourists. The birds bring my family much good, because many people come and pay to see the cormorants.

THORSON: Tourists bring money to the region, but they also put greater pressure on the river. There's more sewage. Tourist boats wind their way up and down the river all day. And after six generations, Won knows he's the last of his family to fish with the cormorants.

WON: [speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: With a one child policy, we can only have one child. I have a daughter, and it's only the men who fish. So I will be the last cormorant fisherman in my family. Many of my friends have gone to work on the tourist boats, but I will stay with my birds.

THORSON: When the birds themselves get too old to fish, Won buys them a kilogram of dog meat and some rice wine. These expensive delicacies are their reward for years of service. Then, for once, he lets them eat all they want. The combination of too much meat and wine kills the bird.

(Splashes, Won calls)

CURWOOD: Our feature on the fishers and the cormorant was produced by Bruce Thorson.



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