Loons: those remarkable fishers Swimmers: A closer look at how loons for centuries led fishermen to their catch confirms that the common loon is anything but common.

On The Bay

July 03, 1998|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

BY WAY of Japan, and Chesapeake ornithologist Paul Spitzer, here is a fish tale for those who think they have heard it all.

Many of us have thrilled to the plummet and swoop of ospreys, terns, pelicans and eagles as they dive on fish each spring and summer across the Chesapeake's surface.

Far fewer are aware that in autumn and winter, there arrives a virtual mirror image of the bay's great aerial diver-fishers, a bird capable of plunging effortlessly beneath the bay 90 feet or more, plumbing all but the estuary's deepest channels.

Migrating through the Chesapeake by the thousands from northern breeding lakes, Gavia immer, the common loon, is anything but common.

It measures nearly a yard from tail to bill's tip, red eyes set in a massive, dark head; with elegant striping along its throat and breast and intricate crosshatching of white and dark along its broad back.

Its very name, loon, seems botched, taken from the Scandinavian, lumme for clumsy, because of the creature's near-inability to walk on land. Underwater, however, it can outswim and outmaneuver many fish.

Spitzer, to my knowledge the only scientist to have spent serious time observing wintering loons on the bay, has come to appreciate the great birds' elegant, co-operative fishing techniques.

"There I floated, surrounded by echelon upon echelon of these Great Northern Divers [the British name for loons], more than 600," he wrote of one October evening.

The loons, floating loosely in a great circle, appeared to form the equivalent of a "living net," Spitzer said.

They coordinated their surface movements by "yipping" back and forth, diving to herd baitfish into dense balls, carving like dark scimitars through liquid silver as they banqueted on their prey.

Spitzer came to feel there was "an old collective wisdom" at work, with the elder loons (they can live 30 years or more) training the younger ones.

Now it turns out that half-a-world away from the Chesapeake, the wisdom of the loons was well-known for more than three centuries to fishermen of Japan's Inland Sea, in Hiroshima Prefecture.

Spitzer recently sent me a fascinating account by Tokyo author Junko Momose, based on her 1995 book -- "A Folklore Intertwined by Loons and Humans: The Story of a Lost Symbiosis."

For at least 300 years, Momose writes, there was a unique harmony between the fishing communities of several islands in the Inland Sea and the Pacific and Arctic loons that came to winter there.

Unlike Asia's well-known cormorant fishing, where birds are manipulated with neck rings to make them catch certain sizes and species, loon fishing used the same natural feeding behavior Spitzer observed in the Chesapeake.

Villagers would spend weeks acclimating the loons, a notoriously skittish species, rowing gently among their flocks every day without fishing until the birds accepted their presence.

Then, in February, the fishermen would row among the feeding flocks and cast hooks beneath the bait (little eels called sand lances) which the loons were herding.

They would catch prized sea bream, a species about the size and shape of a croaker, that gathered to feed on the fallout from the loons as they sliced up the schools of sand lances.

So effective was this technique that the local fishermen were able to make a year's livelihood in a couple of months. Prices were high for their bream because they did not school up elsewhere until April or May in quantities that enabled commercial fishing.

Loons and the fishermen's culture were interwoven, with shrines and rituals dedicated to the birds a common thing. The villagers vTC warned off pleasure craft from areas where the loons fed, to give the birds uninterrupted fishing.

Loon fishing existed at least since 1695, and perhaps went back much further. Even in Japan, it was not well-known until 1926, when Prince Hirohito was shown it on a visit.

By the 1960s, however, it began to decline, and by 1986 it had vanished. Why? Momose says the reasons range from mining of sand, where the sand lances lived, to pollution and increases in power boats -- also the old techniques with rowboats were too laborious for modern fishermen.

The bottom-line cause for the decline, she writes, was "probably a compound factor called modernization."

By 1997, however, in a scenario reminiscent of today's Chesapeake, there were attempts to revive at least a semblance of the old loon fishery as an eco-tourism draw. The loons that still winter there are having to be taught to eat sand lances thrown to them from buckets.

On our own bay, oyster skipjack captains are now making a buck taking tourists out to catch some token oysters and hear about plans to restore water quality.

Meanwhile, Spitzer thinks there is real potential for recreational fishermen on the Chesapeake, if they could be gentle about it, to exploit the autumn feeding by schools of loons, just as Japan's island fishermen once did.

He believes rockfish and bluefish reliably hang out beneath our loons, feeding on little menhaden, just as sea bream fed on the fallout of sand lances in Japan.

It would never work to roar up closely to feeding loons in high powered boats -- the birds would just disperse, and the fish, too.

But keeping a distance and working around the edges of a loon flock, or working from a kayak or canoe, might have great rewards.

Even if it didn't, you would be treated to the spectacle of a loon banquet -- one of the bay's less-observed seasonal rituals.

Pub Date: 7/03/98

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