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.

Increased logging, livestock grazing, and mining activity are threatening the fish's habitats by raising levels of waterborne sediments and nutrients. Uncontrolled fishing and poaching are putting remaining taimen populations at risk, Vander Zanden said.

"Fishing is not part of traditional Mongolian life, though in recent years, illegal fishing has become popular as a result of the influence of foreigners and urban Mongolians," he added.

"The approach we're taking is to create a catch-and-release fishery for taimen that will be sustainable for the long term, thereby simultaneously benefiting the local economy while creating incentives for protection of the resource."

Vermillion's fly-fishing clients each pay around U.S. $5,200. A concession fee is then paid to fund conservation work and enforcement efforts aimed at reducing poaching. Local Mongolians run these river patrols.

Innovative approaches such as the Taimen Conservation Fund's "Fly-fishing for Biodiversity" provide a model to protect freshwater habitats and safeguard some species of fish from over-exploitation, says Zeb Hogan, of the Mekong Fish Conservation Project. Hogan has received funding from the National Geographic Society to research and promote the conservation of giant catfish in the Mekong.

"Globally, the largest species of fish are the ones that disappear first," Hogan said. "Large body size predisposes species to over-exploitation. Large-bodied fish species are in decline worldwide."

The vulnerability of giant species like the taimen may in part be due to a high age at first reproduction, relatively large habitat requirements, and low population density, Hogan said. "In addition, humans often prefer hunting and fishing the largest animals, which can drive 'giant' species to extinction."

Nonetheless, giant fish species, such as the taimen, serve as reminders of the value we place in healthy freshwater ecosystems," Hogan said. "Giant fish species serve as 'canaries in the coal mine.' The disappearance of the largest species is often our first warning sign of over-harvest and biodiversity decline in freshwater environments. Conversely, a rebound in populations of the largest species may indicate an improvement of the overall health of the ecosystem."

Benefits to Local Communitiies

Vermillion says fishing camps also provide employment, and food and supplies are purchased locally.

The project team estimates that up to 10 percent of the 5,334 households in the region will benefit directly from the scheme.

Vermillion says there's an urgent need to regulate the activities of other outfitters drawn here by the taimen's growing reputation as a sport fish.

"Since we started, everyone with a Jeep and a ger [the traditional tent of nomadic herders] purports to run a taimen operation," he said.

"Unfortunately, most of them do not understand the scarcity of the fish or the fact that catch-and-release is important. This is really unfortunate and is a big reason why we are trying to have a certification process for all outfitters."

Buddhist Monastery

As well as creating economic incentives for protecting the taimen, the team hopes to foster a faith-based conservation ethic by rebuilding the Dayan Derkh Buddhist monastery in Hövsgöl province.

The monastery was one of many destroyed in the 1930s during a purge ordered by Mongolia's communist leaders. Buddhists were executed, imprisoned, or exiled, and the religion was effectively outlawed.

But since the demise of Soviet-style totalitarianism in Mongolia, Buddhism has reemerged. This is good news for the taimen, according to Sudeep Chandra, a limnologist at the University of Nevada, Reno.

"Revered by some as the children of a strong river spirit, taimen have been protected for generations due to fundamental Buddhist beliefs in the region," Chandra said. He says such beliefs are also rooted in the ancient shamanistic practices of nomadic herders who have lived in the region for many centuries.

The project team believes that, once rebuilt, the Dayan Derkh monastery will help restore and support these religious traditions and rekindle the nomads' environmental conscience.

And while the taimen is the project's main focus, Chandra says the region's other wildlife should also benefit.

"Since taimen live in a river whose health depends on the health of whole watershed, large parts of the watershed will need to be protected as well," he said. "Thus, money generated from the concession programs is not only intended to be used by the enforcement teams to protect this fish, but to prevent the poaching of other wildlife, such as the red deer and wolf."

Much appears to depend on Mongolia's mighty taimen—from realizing the dreams of wealthy Western fly-fishers, to the preservation of one of the world's last great wildernesses. Even the prairie dogs stand to gain, as long as they keep out the river.

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