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Otter fishing: A centuries-old tradition survives in a Bangladeshi village

In one corner of a medium-sized boat are three otters sitting in a long bamboo cage. A few kilos of fish have been bought from the market to feed them. As soon as the lid is removed to feed them the fish, the otters start jumping up and down in excitement.

When they have calmed down a bit they are lowered into the water, still tied to bamboo with a rope. As soon as they start swimming, the fishermen throw their net into the water.

Fish usually hide under aquatic plants. The otters chase those fish out and drive them into the net. The fishermen pull the net in, and in return for their good work, the otters get to eat some of the fish they helped catch.

This is exactly what we saw at Malopara of Goalbari village, on the banks of Chitra river in Narail Sadar Upazila – an age-old custom of fishing with otters still being practised.

Shyam Biswas represents one of the five fishing families in the area that still carry on the tradition of using otters for fishing. We arrived on his boat after crossing the muddy path of Malopara caused by unexpectedly autumn rain.

This traditional method of fishing requires the collaboration of at least four people, including the oarsman. Typically, fishermen venture out to fish at night, but upon our request, they took the boat out at noon that day.

During our fishing break, Shyam Biswas, Kartik Biswas, and Gandhi Biswas shared their stories about life in Chitra Par, the customs of caring for otters, and the various challenges and rewards of being fishermen.

A fading tradition

Shyam Biswas has been engaged in fishing with otters since his early years, receiving training from his father, Gadadhar Biswas. This fishing tradition has been a longstanding practice among the fishermen of Chitra Par for generations. They have passed down otters from their fathers and grandfathers for this purpose.

Shyam Biswas explained, ‘Using otters results in catching significantly more fish, compared to using a net alone, which is why all the local fishermen used to employ this method.’

He further added, ‘even during my father’s time, the tradition of fishing with otters was followed in approximately 150 households in this area. Now, only five houses, including mine, still have otters.’

Kartik Biswas, with nearly six decades of fishing experience, used to venture into the Sundarbans with his team. However, due to concerns about pirates and various regulations, this opportunity is no longer available. Currently, he doesn’t even own a boat, but assists in fish catching as a ‘vagi’ (sharer) on other fishermen’s boats. Many senior fishermen in Malopara, Chitra Par, find themselves in a similar situation.

“Even during the monsoon, there’s a lack of rain nowadays. The water in rivers and canals can become stagnant due to rotting jute. In such conditions, fish can’t survive. If you can’t catch fish, keeping otters as pets can be expensive. Even managing my own meals is challenging, so it’s even harder to think about eating three or four otters,” Kartik said.

Monsoons and winters traditionally offer the best opportunities for otter-assisted fishing. However, due to factors like climate change, river degradation, the use of Chinese fishing nets, and habitat destruction, even during the fishing season many fishermen endure hardships. Adult otters require approximately one kg of fish daily for their sustenance. When the nets fail to yield enough fish, fishermen are left with no choice but to purchase them from the market to feed their otters.

Otters typically give birth to four to five offspring each year. If the mother lacks sufficient milk, the cubs may need to be nourished with cow’s milk using feeders. In case they fall ill, owners must purchase medicine also.

Even a decade ago, fishermen could easily catch 10-12 kg of fish in a single night with the assistance of otters. Today, it’s not uncommon to go several days without catching even 1-2 kg of fish.

If there were a sufficient supply of fish, fishermen wouldn’t have faced difficulties taking care of otters. But the current reality makes it challenging for them to bear the additional expenses. Consequently, fishermen have lost their interest in keeping otters as pets, and they also say none of their children are inclined to pursue this line of work.

In the village of Malopara, Shyam Biswas, Bhaben Biswas, Robin Biswas, Dhruv Biswas, Roben Biswas currently own a total of 16 otters. One of the otters of Shyam Biswas is soon expected to give birth to babies.

During discussions with other local fishermen in Malopara, it was found they are currently facing challenges in obtaining fishing passes for the Sundarbans, leading to a decrease in their interest in this traditional method of fishing.

However, Abu Naser Mohsin Hossain, the divisional forest officer of the Sundarbans West Division, disagreed.

“Fishermen are not restricted from using otters to catch fish in the Sundarbans. If they apply for a fishing pass, they will certainly get it. Moreover, the Sundarbans attract numerous foreign tourists, and by showcasing this traditional fishing method to them, we can potentially enhance our tourism development with new opportunities,” the official said.

Unique to Bangladeshi villages

Professor Mohammad Mostafa Feroz, from the Department of Zoology at Jahangirnagar University, noted that the tradition of using otters for fishing persists among certain fishermen in villages along the Chitra River in Narail, and a village beside the Sandhya River in Magura.

Before being engaged in fishing, otters undergo comprehensive training. Young otters acquire fish-chasing skills primarily by observing experienced otters. The typical lifespan of an otter ranges from 15 to 20 years.

Professor Feroz said that Bangladeshi fishermen predominantly employ smooth-coated otters for fishing. However, Assistant Professor Muntasir Akash, from the Zoology Department at Dhaka University, pointed out that the otters used along the Chitra River in Narail belong to the Asian small-clawed species. He explained that smooth-coated otters are generally more abundant in areas along the banks of larger rivers, such as the Padma in Rajshahi.

At present, the fishermen at Goalbari village find showcasing otter fishing as a spectacle to tourists more profitable rather than relying on it for their livelihood. According to Shyam Biswas, the primary attraction for tourists visiting Narail is witnessing the unique spectacle of otter-assisted fishing. Foreign tourists, in particular, frequently visit to observe this practice, and the fishermen greatly rely on the support and assistance they receive from these tourists.

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