Catching Fish Using Birds: Stunning Images of a Dying Art in China

On the Li River in Guangxi Province, two elderly brothers have turned their profession into a showcase for tourists.
cormorantbanner.jpgThe brothers Huang Yuechang and Huang Mingde have spent a lifetime fishing with cormorants. (Michael Steverson)

74-year-old Huang Yuechuang sat across from me looking like no entrepreneur I'd ever met before. With his classic white goatee, vintage self-made fishing clothing, and a traditional conical bamboo hat, he looked every part the old fisherman he is. A wiry, spry man with a quick smile, Mr. Huang is a semi-retired cormorant fisherman who works about 25 days each month at the scenic Li River around Xingping Fishing Village in Guangxi Province.  There are fewer fish in the Li these days, so the men, raised as fishermen from their teens, have out of necessity become models for the many millions of travelers who visit the area each year. 

cormorantoldman1.jpgHuang Yuechuang, aged 74. (Michael Steverson)

In a bold move, Mr. Huang, along with his 82-year-old brother Huang Mingde, recently ended a long affiliation with a Yangshuo-based tour operator and struck out on their own. The reason was purely financial: The younger Huang's wife was diagnosed with diabetes a few years ago, and the family needed to cover the mounting monthly cost of insulin.

cormorantlake.jpgThe brothers Huang Mingde (left) and Huang Yuechuang (right) at work on the Li River. (Michael Steverson)

Cormorant fishing is a dying art. For thousands of years, fishermen have used trained cormorants to fish the rivers and lakes of China. The process is simple: The fisherman first ties a snare near the base of the bird's throat, which effectively prevents them from swallowing larger fish, although they can still swallow some smaller fish. When a cormorant catches a fish, the fisherman then brings the bird back to the boat and has it spit the fish up onto the bamboo deck. 

cormorantbrothers.jpgThe brothers wait patiently for the perfect light. (Michael Steverson)

While there aren't many practicing cormorant fisherman left these days, a few, such as Mr. Huang and his brother, can still manage a decent living serving the tourism industry. Mr. Huang first began working with photographers back in the 1970s and never imagined it leading to this. He offers a practical explanation:

cormorantlakesunset.jpgHuang Yuechuang in his office. (Michael Steverson)

"Tourists are interested in seeing the traditional way of life here, such as fishing with cormorants and lanterns, and we are happy to keep the old ways alive while supporting ourselves." It was a risk for the men to go it alone, but risk is the definition of entrepreneurship. So far, it has worked out well for the brothers Huang.

cormorantportrait.jpgHuang Mingde (age 82). (Michael Steverson)

Jump to comments

Michael Steverson, an American documentary photographer based in Guangxi Province, China, runs the photo blog Expatriate Games.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Time JFK Called the Air Force to Complain About a 'Silly Bastard'

51 years ago, President John F. Kennedy made a very angry phone call.

Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.


Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.


Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.


Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.


The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air



More in China

Just In