Fishing with Otters in Bangladesh – A Dying Tradition

Otter Fishing has been a long-standing tradition in Bangladesh. For centuries, fishermen have been using trained otters to lure fish into their nets – a unique technique passed on from father to son that has long died out in other parts of Asia. Bangladeshi fishermen have managed to keep it alive so far, but the future of otter fishing seems uncertain due to the dwindling  population of fish in the country’s rivers.

As a part of the tradition, fishermen lower their nets into the water close to the banks of the river. As they do this, their pet otters also dive tails up into the water with a splash. The animals do not catch the fish themselves, but chase them towards the fishing nets for the fishermen to haul in. Otter fishing is generally practiced during the night, with some fisherman throwing their nets until dawn trying to catch enough fish to support their families. Their hard work yields anywhere between 4 and 12 kilos of fish and shrimp every night.

A fishing family makes about $250 a month with the modest catch. “Our job depends on the otters,” said Shashudhar Biswas, a fisherman from Narail district in southern Bangladesh. “The otters manage to spot fish among the plants, then the fish swim away and we stay close with our nets. If we did it without them, we wouldn’t be able to catch as many fish,” his son Vipul added.


Photo: Bangladesh Unlocked

But the fish, in recent years, have become very scarce and are hard to catch. “The kinds of fish we used to find with our father, we don’t see them anymore,” said Vipul, who is in his 20s. According to Mohammad Mustafa Feeroz, a professor of zoology at Dhaka’s Jahangirnagar University, the natural fish populations have reduced drastically because they are simply unable to breed. “Over-sedimentation, water pollution from oil and the use of pesticides in paddy fields, as well as over catching are all having an impact,” he said. Feeroz has been studying otter fishing in Bangladesh for the past 25 years. Over the years, he has witnessed a steady decline in the number of fishing families – from 500 to just 150. “Go back 50 years and the practice has declined by about 90 percent,” he said.

Fishermen are also finding it difficult to get enough otters from the wild, to train. “Previously, we used to get plenty of fish in the river,” said Shushendu Shikder, an otter fisherman. “We were able to take care of our family and these otters. But nowadays, even if we keep fishing for the whole night, we are not getting enough. We used to have 15 or 20 otters in every family. Now, we have only three or four otters because we cannot maintain them, feed them.” Unfortunately, these fishermen do not know how to catch fish without the help of otters.


Photo: Bangladesh Unlocked

Young Vipul isn’t very optimistic about the future of otter fishing. “If there are no fish, then there’s no point in having the otter fishing system,” he says. “Just look at my family’s situation. My brothers and sisters, they all want to study. They don’t want to get into the river and catch fish. If they study then they will obviously move out of the village to find better jobs or they will buy fish from the wholesale and sell them.” Vipul also worries that his only source of income will soon cease to bring him profits. As it is, most of his earnings are spent on caring for and feeding his five otters – two fully trained adults and three young trainees. Together, they consume about three to four kilograms of fish a day.

Wildlife experts are worried too, not about the fishermen or the fish, but about the otters. Short-haired otters are an endangered species in Bangladesh. Otter fishing is one of the few reasons for their conservation. If the practice is lost, the otter population will begin to fade as well. “The captive population here is very healthy because of fishing,” said Feeroz. “But as the practice gradually decreases, the wild population will face increased pressure.”


Sources: BBC, AFP