Otter fishing is a fishing technique which uses trained otters to fish in rivers. This method has been practised since the 6th century AD in various parts of the world, and is still practiced in southern Bangladesh.
The earliest records of otter fishing are from the Yangtze region of China during the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD) and was observed in the 13th century by Marco Polo on the Yangtze River. Otter fishing in China was practiced for subsistence and also collectively for profit. The Chinese reputedly learned the techniques from the fishermen of Southeast Asia. In India, otter fishing was practiced in the Indus and Ganges river basins, in Bengal and in South India along the Coromandel Coast.
Otter fishing was known in Europe from as early as the 16th century. The Scandinavians trained otters for catching trout. Olaus Magnus, the Archbishop of Uppsala, 1490-1557 published a tome in 1555, De Gentibus Septentrionalinus (History of the Northern Peoples), which includes a sketch of a fishing otter. One of the motifs of Magnus's 1539 map of Scandinavia, Carta marina, is an otter fetching a fish for its master, who is ready with a knife and a cooking vessel on the fire.
Fishing with otters was known in England, Scotland, Germany and Poland. The first mention of otter fishing in the British Isles dates to 1480, while the method for training otters is described in the 1653 book on angling by Izaak Walton, The Compleat Angler. Individual sportsmen in the Americas and Europe have also used otters for sport fishing. British sportsmen who had served in South India during the early years of the Raj have been known to import this practice to their homes in Europe.
Otter fishing is also reported from Central and South America. A Maxacali creation story from Brazil suggests that the practice of otter fishing may have been prevalent in the past. Fishermen from Guyana used a different tactic - they would observe where an otter deposited its catch and later purloin the fish.
In the Old World, two otter species have been primarily used in otter fishing – the European otter (Lutra lutra), chiefly in Europe and North Africa, and the smooth-coated otter (Lutrogale perspicillata), mostly in South Asia and China.
Olaus Magnus wrote that the otter often fetches the catch for its master but "once in awhile forgets and eats the fish". Izaak Walton's 1653 book describes otter pups, three to four months old, being domesticated and trained. The otters were muzzled to prevent them eating fish and secured by lines to their master. The otters then chased fish in a pond into a net. Another technique was to submerge nets and get the otters to shepherd the fish into them, after which the nets, along with otters and catch, were retrieved.
In ancient China, the otter wore a leather harness on its body to which an iron chain was attached. The other end of the chain was either secured to the fisherman's boat or to a bamboo pole. The fisherman would cast his circular net, weighted at the edges, and pull it in. As the net was being pulled in, the otter would be introduced into the net through a small opening. The otter's role was to search for and disturb fish hiding in nooks and crannies and force them into the net so that they were trapped. The otter was subsequently rewarded in the case of a good catch. The practice of using otters to drive fish into nets was prevalent in Asia and is still practiced in southern Bangladesh.
Otter fishing is still practiced in Narail and Khulna districts, near the Sunderbans in southern Bangladesh. Here fishing with otters is a traditional practice in families, passed down through the generations by fishermen who breed the otters and train them to chase the fish into their nets. Earlier, both Lutra lutra and Lutrogale perspicillata were used for otter fishing, but today, only L. perspicillata is used. Otter fishing is usually done at night between 9 PM and 5 AM. The average catch by a single boat in a night ranges from 4 to 12 kilograms (8.8 to 26.5 lb) of crabs, fish and shrimp. Feeroz et al (2011) recorded a population of 176 domesticated otters held in captivity amongst 46 groups of fishermen in these districts, of which 138 were working animals. Lack of fish, changes sought in livelihoods by the young and more economical methods of fishing have reduced the number of otter fishermen drastically.
- Walton, Izaak (1653). The Compleat Angler. Project Gutenberg. Retrieved 22 April 2014.
- Simoons, Frederick J. (12 November 1990). Food in China: A Cultural and Historical Inquiry. CRC Press. pp. 342–343. ISBN 978-0-8493-8804-0.
- Gabriel, Otto; Lange, Klaus; Dahm, Erdmann; Thomas Wendt (15 April 2008). Fish Catching Methods of the World. John Wiley & Sons. p. 33. ISBN 978-0-470-99563-1.
- "Map Section F. (of Carta Marina by Olaus Magnus)". James Ford Bell Library. University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. University Libraries. Retrieved 22 April 2014.
- Warren, Jonathan W. (26 September 2001). Racial Revolutions: Antiracism and Indian Resurgence in Brazil. Duke University Press. pp. 1–4. ISBN 0-8223-2741-4.
- Trianni, Francesca (27 March 2014). "Otters Have Helped Bangladesh Fishermen Catch Fish For Centuries". Time.com. Retrieved 23 April 2014.
- Feeroz, M.M., Begum, S. and Hasan, M. K. (2011). "Fishing with Otters: a Traditional Conservation Practice in Bangladesh". Proceedings of XIth International Otter Colloquium, IUCN Otter Spec. Group Bull. 28A: 14–21.
- Gudger, E. W. (1927-05-01). "Fishing with the Otter". The American Naturalist 61 (674): 193–225. doi:10.1086/280146. JSTOR 2456673. Retrieved 2014-05-09.
- Video: Journeyman Pictures & ABC Australia (March 1997). Otter Fishing - Bangladesh
- Video: BBC (9 April 2012). Threat to otter fishing in Bangladesh
- Video: Time.com (27 Mar 2014). Otters Have Helped Bangladesh Fishermen Catch Fish For Centuries
- Slideshow: CBS News (11 March 2014). Otters aid Bangladesh fishermen