The Dying Tradition Of Bangladeshi Otter Fishing

“The kinds of fish we used to find with our father, we don’t see here anymore.” —Vipul Biswas, fisherman

In A Nutshell

Anyone in the audience a fisherman or woman? If so, you might want to visit Bangladesh and see how it’s done without a rod or reel. In this South Asian country, humans and otters actually work together to catch fish. However, due to multiple environmental issues, this tradition is quickly disappearing.

The Whole Bushel

When most people think of fishing, they usually picture a guy wearing waders and a floppy Gilligan Island hat bedecked with lures. Perhaps he’s standing in a stream or stooped over in his boat, but chances are good he’s using an everyday rod and reel. If that’s the way you imagine fishing, then you’ve never been to Bangladesh. Take a boat ride through the Sundarbans, one of the largest mangrove forests in the world, and you might discover crews of fishermen working on long wooden boats. But instead of casting their lines into the river, you’ll see them opening cages and setting long, sleek short-haired otters into the water. They’ve been fishing this way for centuries, and now their custom is quickly dying out.

Otter fishing was once practiced across Asia, but today it’s only found in Bangladesh. Every night, small crews paddle out into the Bangladeshi waterways, each boat weighed down with several men and bamboo cages filled with otters. When the tides are high, the fishermen open the cages and strap the otters into specially made coir harnesses that go around their front legs and chests. The mammals are then tossed into the water, along with several handfuls of bait fish. These freebies keep the hungry catchers from gobbling up the fishermen’s catch and entice them to swim further away from the boat.

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So how does otter fishing work? Well, the otters don’t actually grab fish and carry them back to their masters. Instead, they scare the fish out of their hiding places and chase them toward the boat where the fishermen have a bamboo net waiting in the water. Depending on the fish, environment, and old-fashioned luck, crews can catch anywhere from 4–30 kilograms (8–66 lb) of catfish, crabs, shrimp, and sea bass per trip. A particularly good haul can earn fishermen up to $250.

However, fewer and fewer Bangladeshis are taking up this old custom because otter fishing is becoming less and less profitable. Thanks to over-sedimentation, over-fishing, and pollution, the fish just aren’t breeding. Fewer fish means no cash, and that’s bad news for the fishermen and the otters. Short-haired otters are endangered animals, and fishing has kept the creatures strong and healthy. Not only are they cared for in captivity, but after they “retire,” many are returned to the wild where they reinvigorate the dwindling population. As fewer and fewer families take up otter fishing, it seems more and more likely an entire species and a whole way of life might soon disappear forever.

Show Me The Proof

National Geographic: Traveller: Bangladesh: Otter fishing
Hindustan Times: Bangladesh’s otter fishing tradition faces extinction