Friday, 21 March 2014

Fishing with Otters

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.

Lunchtime finds Bhoben Biswas, 35, aboard his narrow boat in front of his modest house. Sitting on haunches he’s sorting small fish. He’s not examining his catch but arranging a raw fish lunch for his Indian smooth-coated otters – called either udhbiral or bhodor in Bangla, and known as dhere in Narail.

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 has manoeuvred the boat onto the water at our request while his father spreads the fish onto a large metal feeding tray. At one end of the boat is a covered area where the customary crew of four somehow find sleeping place during extended fishing expeditions, while at the other is the long box of bamboo slats where the otters live.

The otters are also aware of tradition. They similarly learnt the art of fishing with humans from their parents and grandparents; and they know when it’s lunchtime. There’s a lot of shuffling inside the box. Tips of noses, claws and eager eyes are finding gaps between the slats; a shrill rat-like squealing challenges the Chitra’s tranquillity. The otters are ready.

The otters know when it's lunchtime.

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.

His otters eat about five kilograms of fish per day which costs up to 400 taka. Presumably this is more burdensome on the budget when the troop is in their home port, because otters will eat crustaceans, insects and even small mammals – while on a fishing expedition keeping their bellies satisfied must be simpler.

“Some people are scared of them,” says Biswas, “but not me.” It mightn’t be easy to be scared of an otter from a distance, as they look storybook cute: but watching them eat with sharp gnawing teeth and mesmerising pink gums, seeing right into their throats as morsels of fish slide down, noting their ravenous manners, beady eyes and what may be a battle scar or two – it doesn’t inspire putting one’s hand between an otter and its lunch. Yet for their part they’re unaffected by the new human barely two feet away.

Biswas says all his otters are the same – he doesn’t have names for them. Perhaps they feel the same about their humans.

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.”

Like for all Bengalis the otters’ year begins on Pahela Boishakh, 14 April. It’s an important day that marks the embarkation in their motor-less boat for five months of fishing in the Sundarbans wilderness. “It takes two days to get there,” says Biswas, “but if we hang onto a trawler we arrive in one.”

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.

“If we get fish we are happy,” says Biswas, “But when fish are few our stomachs aren’t full.” It’s a sentiment most likely shared with his otters.

During the fishing months it’s dacoity, robbery, which is the biggest problem. There’s not a lot of security on a quiet deep-jungle waterway. “Last Aasha month we were held hostage by bandits for twelve days,” Biswas recalls, “We had to pay a 10,000 taka ransom.”

Otter lunchtime.

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.”

For the otters dangers include illness and crocodiles. According to Biswas an otter can live up to thirty years if there is no misadventure. And of course a problem for the otters is one for the humans and vice versa. It’s a joint venture arrangement that Biswas has pursued for the last fifteen years.

These are the types of concerns that hold sway over Biswas’s face. If he stopped to think he might take pride from pursuing an ancient tradition. He might enjoy the inherent adventure. But his thoughts are family-centred, on his wife Mira, their two sons and daughter, who must manage alone during the fishing months. The pride he seeks is providing for them and it’s when he says “The best thing is if the catch is good. Then we make lots of money and the family runs nicely,” that his face finally surrenders to a broad smile.

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.

After lunch the otters head into their element – the water. “They like to take a drink,” says Biswas. They also play and scamper about the riverbank in search of things of otter-interest. It’s demonstrably apt that the English words ‘otter’ and ‘water’ stem from the same ancient root. A good half an hour later, Biswas calls “Ay! Ay! Ay!” to his otter team and they return to their bamboo home. But Biswas is in no rush to disrupt their play. It’s clear that despite the hardships he holds affection for his animal assistants.

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.

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