In southwest Bangladesh, fishermen get help from unusual partners: river otters. For generations, fishermen have trained river otters to catch fish. But the rare tradition is fading away as rivers change and become more polluted, leaving fewer fish to catch.
On a long wooden boat, river otters squeal and squirm inside a large bamboo box. On this sunny autumn day in Narail District, fishermen guide the boat along the green waters of the Chitra River. When they open the box, six brown otters scramble out and dive into the river. They gleefully glide alongside the boat propelled by fishermen with long oars.
For at least two centuries, otters tamed in captivity have helped fishermen in southwest Bangladesh by chasing fish into a large net hooked to the boat. Today, three of the sleek otters are on rope harnesses attached to rods that extend from the boat. These long leashes let the otters swim about six meters away.
Young otters are not leashed to the boat but don’t stray far from their parents while swimming. The adults weigh 8 to 10 kilograms, or about 20 pounds, and are about three feet long from nose to tail.
They paddle in the river with their cat-like faces peeping out of the water. Then they scramble onto a muddy riverbank and playfully roll on their backs before leaping back into the water.
Are the otters working or playing? The fishermen lower their net into the water as the call to prayer drifts over the river. When they pull the net up there is only a paltry catch of small fish and shrimp. They throw most of these small fry back into the water, where the otters catch fish between their webbed paws.
But the fishermen and otters work best at night, when they can catch between 10-15 kilograms of fish for themselves. They can make about 2,000 taka a day, about $25, split among several fishermen. They feed each of the otters about 4 kilograms of fish daily. And the otters have the extra benefit of eating as they work.
Robin Biswas, a 40-year-old fisherman from Gopra village who owns the otters, said his father and grandfather also fished with the animals. But in his father’s generation, there were about 100 families in his village that fished with otters. Today, there are only 12.
The river is getting saltier so there are fewer fish, said Biswas. Sluice gates that control water flow between rivers also cut off the movements of larger fish. And villagers want other work that is more reliable and easier.
“Now we do not earn much money. In my father’s generation, they earned more,” said Biswas.
Fishing with otters is a tradition in just a few districts in Bangladesh near the Sundarbans mangrove forest. The country has hundreds of rivers, but wildlife is threatened by water pollution and encroachment on habitat. Biologists say fishermen help maintain the otter population by breeding and caring for them.
There are about 300 otter fishermen in Narail and Khulna districts, say researchers with Jahangirnagar University in Dhaka. They recorded 176 otters who help fishermen, according to a study they published in 2011.
More than a decade ago there were more than 500 fishing otters.
Biswas, however, said he will continue to work with otters as long as there are fish to catch.
“The otter is our tradition. It comes from our grandfathers. We love otters and we live from catching fish. The otter helps us,” he said.
But if fishermen can’t make a living, they can’t keep otters anymore.
The unique tradition of otters swimming next to fishing boats in Bangladesh may become just a memory.