Can Angling Save World's Largest Salmon?

James Owen in London
for National Geographic News
August 19, 2004

Dan Vermillion still thrills to the memory of his first encounter with a fish of every angler's dreams.

He had reached the banks of the Eg River, amid the vast steppe of northern Mongolia, to check out travelers' tales of an enormous freshwater salmon. To his surprise, his Mongolian guide produced a freshly shot prairie dog, which he attached to a fishing line and threw in the river.

Moments later the water erupted to a massive strike mid-current. The fish got away—with a big chunk of prairie dog—but Vermillion was hooked for good.

Two decades later Vermillion, from Livingston, Montana, is behind an unusual ecotourism venture that aims to safeguard the taimen (Hucho taimen) by encouraging Westerners to catch it.

That might seem a contradiction, but only artificial flies are used, not dead rodents, and Vermillion says fish are released unharmed after capture.

"All our flies [have] single, barbless hooks which is the only way you can run a true catch-and-release program," said Vermillion, of Sweetwater Travel, a fly-fishing outfitter which runs trips around the world.

Along with conservationists, Vermillion is worried about economic and environmental pressures facing the people and wildlife of the Eg and Üür river catchment areas—a poor, sparsely inhabited region that covers some 3.48 million hectares (8.6 million acres). The rivers form part of the watershed of Lake Baikal in Russia, the world's deepest lake.

A conservation partnership between Sweetwater Travel, the International Finance Corporation, and Mongolian nongovernmental organizations—including the Taimen Conservation Fund, based in the capital, Ulaanbaatar—now aims to address these concerns. The International Finance Corporation has put one million U.S. dollars toward the project.

"[The taimen's] range includes the former Soviet Union and Mongolia, though it is now quite rare or extirpated [exterminated] throughout much of its historical range," said Jake Vander Zanden, a U.S. limnologist [expert on freshwater habitats] at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Vander Zanden, who with Sudeep Chandra manages the Taimen Conservation Fund's science team, says the fish can reach two meters (6.6 feet) in length and weigh up to 100 kilograms (220 pounds). That makes the taimen the world's largest salmonid (a family that includes salmon and trout).

Taste for Mammals

A voracious feeder with cannibalistic tendencies, the taimen eats, among other things, mammals unfortunate enough to end up in the water.

Continued on Next Page >>


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