Saturday, July 4, 2015

Falconry of the Sea

Cormorants (derived from Latin corvus marinus, or "sea raven") are medium-to-large birds that stay near to larger bodies of water to fish. They dive from the surface, and propel themselves underwater like a torpedo with their webbed feet and sometimes their wings.
Traditional cormorant fishing scene (photo: wikipedia)

Cormorant fishing is a longstanding, traditional river fishing method in which fishermen use trained cormorants to gather fish. It is an old tradition in China, parts of Europe, and Japan.  Cormorant fishing on the Nagara River in Japan has continued uninterrupted for the past 1,300 years. It runs from May 11 to October 15 of each year, and started as a means for people to feed their families. Cormorant fishing (ukai) has changed from a way to live, to a commercial industry, and now into a major tourist draw which hasn't changed much in its traditions.

The season starts with a river opening ceremony (kawabiraki) as a memorial service for the fish caught in the river the year before, and to offer prayers for the safety of the boats and fishermen at the commencement of the fishing season.

The fishing masters (usho) usually use the Japanese cormorant (umiu), which are native to East Asia.  The cormorants used are well fed and cared for and are treated like family by the fishing master, which in turn typically triples to quadruples their life span (wild Cormorants usually live for 4-5 years, while these trained birds live anywhere from 15-20 years).

The usho chooses 10-12 cormorants to use that evening and then dons the same traditional clothing used for centuries (dark cotton kimono, headdress to fend off sparks (kazaore-eboshi), and a straw apron that repels water (koshimino)).  They prepare their boats (ubune), a small flat bottomed boat made to navigate the shallow waters of the rivers, and set off in teams of 3 people; the usho who guides and handles the cormorants as they catch the fish, the middle rider (nakanori) who helps pick up the fish that are caught, and the companion rider (tomonori) who pilots the boat down the river. 

When they begin their evening fishing run, they light a pile of split pinewood (matsuwariki) hanging in an iron basket (kagari) suspended in front of the boat, which is used to light both the usho's path and make it easier for the cormorants to find their prey, the sweetfish (ayu). 
You can see the ring around this cormorant's neck (photo: wikipedia)
When the cormorants catch a fish, they are brought back to the boat using a leash (tenawa) attached to a ring tied around their necks, and then the usho removes the fish from the birds' throats.  The ring around their neck prevents them from swallowing the larger fish, but the cormorants are still able to swallow smaller fish they catch or are rewarded with by the usho.  The ropes are strong, but the usho are able to quickly break them if a bird's leash gets caught beneath rocks, ensuring the safety of the birds.

Cormorant fishing has a longstanding tradition on the Nagara river which has inspired both famous English comic actor Charlie Chaplin and the greatest master of haikus Matsuo Basho.  I'll leave you with one he wrote about the experience.

Exciting to see
but soon after, comes sadness
the cormorant boats.

Submitted by William Oberbeck III, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist/Trainer

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