|Fishing with otters is an age old tradition.|
|An otter fishing boat beside Goalbari village.|
By lunchtime it’s unmistakable: the sunshine is bringing new warmth to winter’s end. Water hyacinth lazily rides the currents on the offshoot of the Chitra River in Goalbari village of Narail. Along the riverbank wives have hung clothes to dry and below, where a muddy track leads to water’s edge several canoe-like boats are moored. It could be a pleasant scene from any fishing village except that as well as the boats Goalbari harbours a unique fishing tradition.
|Bhoben Biswas, 35, making a raw fish lunch for his otters.|
Fishing with domesticated otters was a practice once found in several countries but is nowadays most probably restricted worldwide to southwest Bangladesh – more specifically to Mongla and Narail. As is still true for eight other Goalbari families – in a village of two hundred households – Biswas inherited this livelihood from his father who learnt from his father before him. Otter fishing has potentially been part of the small community for many centuries, but is in decline.
|Biswas's son helps his father.|
Biswas signals his son. With the lid’s opening there’s a scramble of seven thick-coated furry bodies – an otter can weigh up to 11 kilograms – leaping up and out, with each body momentarily rainbow-arch-manoeuvred in a beeline to the fish feast on deck. Squealing stops as gorging begins.
|The otters waste no time in devouring their lunch.|
|Table manners are not the otters' strong point.|
The team leaders – the adult otters, wear rope harnesses with Biswas’s son holding the other end. The younger otters remain free. It’s the system that’s used as the otters work, as they shepherd fish into the net attached to a long bamboo pole that’s currently rolled up and stored along one side of the boat. “They focus on the bamboo pole,” says Biswas, “and drive fish towards it.”
|Southwest Bangladesh is likely the only otter fishing place, worldwide.|
The crew of four will spend five days at a stretch fishing the jungle river channels before heading to a nearby settlement to sell the catch. The crew cooks on a solar powered stove and drinking water lasting for several days is stored in a large urn. Fishing occurs at low tide, day or night.
It’s also difficult if the fish are few. “Once a whole month passed with no fish,” he says, “We had to take a loan to come home again.”
|Enjoy their lunch, claws and all!|
With the five months completed both humans and otters return home to Durga Puja. Afterwards they will leave for a shorter three-month expedition on the nearer rivers of Faridpur. There are few surprises in the otter-and-fisherman life cycle.
|On Pahela Boishakh they leave for the Sundarbans for five months.|
Back at the house Mira expresses her hope that her son can run a shop. Biswas too wishes to see an end to the otter fishing for his family. “I hope my sons do not do it,” he says, “But the oldest one doesn’t study properly.” You see, even otter fishermen face that familiar problem – and one cannot but be in two minds upon hearing it. On the one hand, who could wish any student not to do well in their studies? On the other, it is regrettable to concede that before too long otter fishing might finally meet history’s relegation.
|After lunch the otters enjoy a drink and a swim.|
A brighter future might lie in tourism. The first-rate otter drawcard already lures a trickle of intrepid westerners to stay with local families for several days – perhaps inspired by the BBC documentary. But the sector is unorganised, and even were its potential realised, there is risk that otter fishing would become more entertainment than living tradition, as lucrative tourism taka displaced the drive for Sundarbans bravery.
|Otter swimming in Goalbari, Narail.|
|The smooth coat glistens when in the water.|
|There's always time for a bit of play and banter.|
|Otters are in their element in the water.|
|Otters having river fun.|
|And onto the riverbank...|
|Exploring the riverbank.|
|After lunch play...|
|Finding otter things to do...|
|A young otter enjoying lunch.|
|From a distance, storybook cute.|
This article is published in Star Magazine, here: Fishing with Otters
|Otters learn fishing with humans from their parents and grandparents.|
|Too many photos! It's about putting one's foot down.|