Traditional fishing at Inle lake in Myanmar

Traditional fishing at Inle Lake is endemic and very specific to this local environment. Inle Lake is the second largest lake in Myanmar with a size of approximately 50 square miles (abt. 116 km2). During the dry season, the average water depth is only 7 feet (2.1 m). During the rainy season, the average depth increases to 12 feet (3,6 m). It is therefore a large and shallow lake. Large areas of the lake are covered by aquatic floating plants and the water is warm, clear, and slightly alkaline. These conditions support a rich fauna within and outside its waters.

Fish species caught at Inle Lake

Research by Kyushu University found 49 fish species in the lake system, of which 13 species were endemic and 17 species were non-native. These figures differ amongst different studies, but all of them show a high number of endemic species. A majority of endemic fish are cyprinids with the most famous one being the Inle Carp (Cyprinus carpio intha). Many of these endemic fish are important for the aquarium trade. Most fish caught for human consumption however are introduced tilapia species.

Intha community

‘Intha’ means in the local language ‘sons of the lake’. They are an ethnic minority in Shan State province and represent a majority of 70% in the northern parts of the lake. About 100.000 Inthas live in stilt houses within floating villages on the lake. They developed a very unique leg-rowing style for males and the specific conditions for fishing on Inle Lake.

Traditional rowing technique of Intha fishermen

Characteristics of Inle Lake are its large size (about. 11 miles / 18 km long), shallow depths, few and low waves, many aquatic plants, and clear water. It is therefore possible to use long and flat canoes with low side walls and flat sterns. They are normally made from teak wood at Nampan village and caulked with lacquer made from Melanorrhea usitata resin. Traditionally, one man rowed these canoes for short distances leg-rowing style and for longer distances by paddling. Women will never do leg-rowing, but sit at the stern with crossed legs and paddle. Nowadays, often a small outboard motor is used for covering longer distances.

Leg-rowing was developed due to the following reasons:

  • A sitting person in a low boat will be poorly seeing fish from this very flat angle
  • Restricted visibility from this low position for maneuvering through aquatic plants
  • As the fisherman was alone in the boat, he had to position the boat and handle the fishing gear at the same time.

Intha fishermen row the boat by standing on one leg on the boat’s end and wrapping the other leg around the oar. Through half-circular movements with the rowing leg and positioning the oar with one hand, they are getting fast and precisely propelled through the water. And the other hand is free for handling fishing gear. As the water surface is very often smooth, the lake very shallow and they got experience from a young age, this seemingly risky positioning and movements are not dangerous in daily performance.

Net-basket fishing technique at Inle Lake

Traditionally, a net basket, called ‘Saung’ in the Intha language, was used for catching fish. Nowadays, however, Saung-fishing is often replaced by fishing with drift gillnets. As Saung’s are iconic for fishing at Inle Lake, they are nowadays mostly used for demonstrations to tourists.

Catching principal of a net-basket

A Saung is a combination of two fishing techniques. It is an over-dimensional plunge basket with the integrated functions of a cast net. The plunge basket was stripped down to a light bamboo structure and increased to a vertical length of about 2,5 m / 8 feet. Inside this basket, a cast net was fitted, which is fixed by a rope to the conical end of the basket and thus kept open. This cast net has the same netting pockets on its lower end as a normal cast net. Only the weighing line was replaced by permanently binding the net to the large bottom rim of the plunge basket. This structure is despite its large size still light and manageable by one hand of an able-bodied fisherman.

Fishing technique with a net-basket

The fisherman is leg-rowing until he either sees a fish directly or the fish’s characteristic air bubbles on the water surface indirectly. Every fish species produces its bubble signature, determined by bubble size and bubble frequency. He then plunges the Saung on top of the sighting or indication. Thereafter he immediately loosens the knotted rope on the Saung top end and the net falls on the possible catch. Simultaneously, the Saung has to be pressed into the mud of the lake bottom to prevent losing the catch. The disadvantage of a Saung is the inflexible bottom rim, unlike the flexible lead chain of a cast net. When plunging the Saung, fish will try to find possible escape routes under the bamboo rim to get outside the net.

After the net fell on top of the catch, the fisherman sticks a long fish spear through the upper opening ring of the net. Fully inserted, he stirs up the muddy lake bottom with the 3-pronged spearhead without barbs. Because of the created commotion, fish will flee sideward and into the net pockets, where they get stuck. After feeling the fish’s movement within the net, the bamboo frame will be lifted out of the water and the catch be harvested.

Lessons learned about net-basket fishing at Inle Lake:

  • As Inle Lake covers a huge area and is shallow and calm on the surface, it is possible to use a specific type of plunge basket for regular fishing.
  • This over-dimensional plunge basket, combined with a cast net, is locally called ‘Saung’.
  • The main catches are tilapia- (cichlids) and carp species (cyprinids).
  • Traditional net-basket fishing at Inle Lake was mostly replaced by gill netting.

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