Cormorant fishing is a traditional fishing technique in which fishermen use trained cormorants to catch fish in rivers. Historically, cormorant fishing has taken place in Japan and China, as well as Greece, North Macedonia, and briefly, England and France. It is first attested as a method used by the ancient Japanese in the Book of Sui, the official history of the Sui Dynasty of China, completed in 636 CE. Though cormorant fishing once was a successful enterprise, its primary use today is to serve the tourism industry. This artisan fishing method is no longer used anywhere except southwestern China, where it is also under threat from competition from more modern methods.
To control the birds, the fishermen tie a loose snare near the base of the bird's throat. The snare does not stop the bird from swallowing small fish, but prevents the bird from swallowing larger fish, which are held temporarily in their gullet. When a cormorant has caught a fish in its throat, the fisherman brings the bird back to the boat and has it regurgitate the fish out.
The types of cormorants used differ based on the location. In Gifu, Japan, the Japanese cormorant (Phalacrocorax capillatus) is used; Chinese fishermen often employ great cormorants (P. carbo). Darters (birds in the genus Anhinga), which are close relatives of cormorants, are also used for this fishing technique on occasion.
Cormorant fishing, called ukai (鵜飼) in Japanese, takes place in 13 cities in Japan. The most famous location is Gifu, Gifu Prefecture, home to cormorant fishing on the Nagara River, which has continued uninterrupted for the past 1,300 years. Cormorant fishing in Seki also takes place on the Nagara River, but it is called 'Oze cormorant fishing' (小瀬鵜飼 Oze Ukai). Only the cormorant fishing masters in Gifu and Seki are employed by the emperor and called Imperial Fishermen of the Royal Household Agency.
- Fuefuki, Yamanashi Prefecture (Fuefuki River)
- Gifu, Gifu Prefecture (Nagara River)
- Seki, Gifu Prefecture (Nagara River)
- Inuyama, Aichi Prefecture (Kiso River)
- Uji, Kyoto Prefecture (Uji River)
- Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture (Ōi River)
- Arida, Wakayama Prefecture (Arida River)
- Miyoshi, Hiroshima Prefecture (Basen River)
- Masuda, Shimane Prefecture (Takatsu River)
- Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture (Nishiki River)
- Ōzu, Ehime Prefecture (Hiji River)
- Hita, Ōita Prefecture (Mikuma River)
- Asakura, Fukuoka Prefecture (Chikugo River)
In Guilin, Guangxi, cormorant birds are famous for fishing on the shallow Lijiang River. Elsewhere in southern China, the Bai people have utilized cormorant fishing since the 9th century on the banks of Erhai Lake. Traditionally practised for sustenance, cormorant fishing is now primarily performed for tourists.
Cormorant fishing is an old tradition in Greece and North Macedonia, especially on Doiran Lake which lies in the border of the two countries, and it is still practiced today by some traditional fishermen. In Western Europe, cormorant fishing took place from the 16th to 17th centuries, primarily in England and France. In the 19th century, Francis Henry Salvin reintroduced the practice in England by putting on displays and bringing his birds to fisheries exhibitions. This "second phase" of English cormorant fishing lasted until about 1890.
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