Updated: Jul 27
Dr. Orton explores the dying art of fishing with trained otters on Bangladesh’s beautiful Chitra river…
Shyam Biswas has been fishing since he was a boy. He works at night, in a group of four men - and two more very special members of the team.
These are Indian smooth-coated otters, trained to help the men catch fish on Southwest Bangladesh’s beautiful Chitra river. Shyam admits that his non-human teammates are very mischievous. Latika, Shyam’s wife, tells me that the otters fight among themselves a lot and it is very funny.
Fishing with trained otters is a traditional but declining practice in the Narail and Khulna districts of Bangladesh. Shyam is in his late 40s and lives in the village of Gobra in Narail. Fishing with otters is the only work he knows.
One evening, under a clear sky full of stars, I meet Shyam and his team on the river to watch how the work is done. The only sounds are the hum of insects in the forest, the occasional night bird and the squeaks of the otters as the fishermen prepare to release them into the water.
The otters do not actually catch the fish; they herd them into the nets. They are sleek in the water, gliding through the river near the banks. One catches a frog and spends a good portion of the evening chomping on it.
Shyam describes his method: “We first put down the otters into the water. Then they chase the fish that are hiding in the corners and the fish then hear the sound and enter into the net…When the otters dive into the water, the fish are lured into the net by their sound. And we catch the fish and keep those fish on the boat.”
The otters wear a simple rope harness attached to a pole controlled by the fisherman’s foot and the fishermen use a square or rectangular scoop or lift net to catch the fish. A boat requires 4 people, Shyam tells me: “Two have to cast the net and the other two have to steer the boat. That means two have to catch fish and the other two have to keep the boat straight.”
The next morning, I meet the otter pups in a bamboo box on Shyam’s boat. The fishermen raise the pups in captivity, taking about three months to train them, and they are generally fed before the adults. They poke their noses through the slats of the box, mewing loudly, before Shyam opens the lid to feed them.
I know they would bite me if they could but they are so sweet! Shyam explains that the baby otters are initially fed with cows’ milk before going on to fish. They are barely three months old, but in a month, the adults will not be able to compete with the pups. The pups will later be sold to other otter fishers.
A Vanishing Tradition
The Chitra river is almost completely covered with green water hyacinth as it meanders over the plains of the Ganges-Brahmaputra river systems that form Bangladesh. The water hyacinth gives the main river its lush green character, but it is an invasive weed.
Other environmental challenges facing the area include the fact that the river is becoming more saline. The Chitra is a freshwater river, but the dam upstream has been diverting water from the Ganges for the last 40 years. Without the freshwater flow from the north, salinity increases.
Shyam tells me that there are there less fish in the river: “The first reason is the salt water coming into the river. River water is drying up due to brackish water. And as the river water dries up, the fish are decreasing. This means that the silty soil layer below the river is accumulating…There is not enough space for the fish to roam.”
Gandhi Biswas agrees. He has been fishing with otters for almost 40 years, but says things have got worse. There used to be a lot of fish in the river before.
As a result, the art of fishing with otters is dying out. Shyam has noticed a dramatic decline in otter fishing. There used to be about 30 boats in Gobra village, whereas now there are just five.
“Everyone used to catch fish with otters. And now everyone is leaving this work and doing other work.”
The future of Otter Fishing
As for the future, Shyam will not let his children do this work. “What we earn from this job does not fill our stomach,” he says. “So how will they eat? We don’t get to eat properly, we can’t take good care of them. They will live their lives by doing something else.”
Speaking of when the practice dies out, Shyam acknowledged, “It will feel bad at that time. But if there is no one for this work then what to do?”
For now, though, the otters remain very much part of the family’s lives. “We like them so much,” the children tell me. “We hold the otters in our laps and play with them, feed them, then cuddle them and kiss them and so many other things.”
Latika recalls her original impression of the otters: “I have seen these for the first time here. I had never seen these in our areas before…At first I was quite scared. Now I have become accustomed to seeing these otters. Now I’m not afraid anymore…Now they’re like my pet animal. I don’t get scared anymore.”
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