A complex perspective
Written by Jerry Burley
Where have 15 years gone? That was a question that more than one, seasoned fisherman asked of himself – and out loud to others sitting around him too – as the UWA Director of Tourism Development & Business Services, Raymond Engena, officially opened this year’s event. The end of February was beckoning, on a stiflingly hot, Wednesday evening, as this group of dedicated anglers again gathered together in the bar of Murchison River Lodge, to hear from the tournament organisers what the next three days would bring.
Since its inception as the relaxed, Just Kicking Sports Bar competition back in 2001, through the highly competitive “middle years” era of its international status as a qualifying circuit of the Rolex IGFA World Inshore finals, to where it is today as a wholly Uganda-focused, invitational event, this tournament has challenged organisers and participants alike to reach an acceptable status quo. Most, if not all, would I think now agree that things are just about at that comfortable, balanced and generally happy medium. Balanced, that is, between cost and reward, between competition and enjoyment, between safety and excitement, whilst still ensuring complete respect for the environment. Let’s not forget the main raison d’être either, that being to allow participants to indulge in their hobby and to enjoy the sport, in the company of like-minded friends, with the magnificent surroundings of one of the world’s great national parks as a backdrop. That the event raises a few quid for conservation and supports a pretty deprived local school can only be a bonus, I suggest. Is there another side to this epic tournament, though?
Sport fishing has been going on along the Nile between Chobe Lodge and Paraa for 70 years now (Chobe was originally built as a fishing lodge), so it’s absolutely nothing new. As the financial cost of protecting areas such as Murchison increase yearly, so authorities and private facility owners everywhere continually have to explore new, sustainable and profit-making ways to market their products to meet these burgeoning overheads. I’m going to stick my finger into the hornet’s nest though now, and have an alternative look at this particular event, and indeed, perhaps, indirectly the broader subject of sport fishing too. This time though, looking through the eyes of some who will perhaps see it as a conflict, namely a sport involving wildlife and one that is entertained in a protected area too. It is relatively uncommon that sport fishing is sanctioned by the managing authority in a conservation area such as Murchison, though of course Uganda and many other countries also have similar protected areas where controlled fishing and game hunting is allowed. Hunting, equally, can cause the odd raised eyebrow amongst certain sectors of the conservation and wildlife world, though I must state here, certainly not ALL sectors. Whilst the following views remain entirely my own, as a past Chairman of the Uganda branch of the Uganda Conservation Foundation, I hope I am reasonably well placed to offer a reasoned, pragmatic argument that allows for well-managed, catch-and-release fishing events to fall within the confines of conservation. I hope you can bear with me now, as I present.
The Murchison Falls Invitational Fishing Tournament (MFIFT) is an annual event, which generally takes place in the last week of Feb or the first week of March, a relatively quiet period for general tourism but when conditions for fishing are happily at their optimal. Some 60 fishermen and women descend on Murchison River Lodge (one of the top three event sponsors) in 30 vehicles, dragging motor boats and a plethora of fishing paraphernalia along with them. At this point, those of you with an accounting brain can start doing the maths, should you so wish; that’s more than 60 individual park entry fees for three days each, 30 vehicle entry fees, 20 boat launch fees, probably 60 three-day fishing permits. Dare I say it, a fair chunk of change for a three day event, in low season, by any measure and certainly significant to UWA. Let’s put an approximate figure of USD15000 of revenue on it, for the days actually spent in the park fishing during the event. The tournament also directly supports Paraa Primary School, which is located on the park boundary, near to the Paraa river crossing and which has nearly 600 pupils – many of them, of course, the children of UWA staff – to the tune of a further USD2500 annually. Doesn’t sound like that much to you? I welcome you to come and talk to the head mistress and to review the impact this support is already having on academic, musical and sporting performances by the school of late. Add to this the new 125cc off-road motorcycle that is donated to the event each year by the local Yamaha main agent (owned by Toyota Uganda), which is then immediately on-donated to UWA for their conservation activities, and we have a further USD4000 dropped into the pot. Last year, following the disbursement of an accumulated surplus of funds from previous years, a new ranger patrol boat and outboard engine were donated to help with the anti-poaching activities on the river, which would have cost UWA around USD16000. I hope the general picture is beginning to emerge regarding funds generated for appropriate causes……..
All well and good but detractors will, of course, be looking at the downsides, those areas that fall outside of the obvious, repeat benefits deriving from the cash raised. I will now try to offer reasoned and balanced argument, so that things can be seen and appreciated from both sides’ point of view.
The larger, target fish (Nile perch and various catfish) are most popularly caught with live bait, smaller fish of 1kg or less typically, that co-exist in the river in huge numbers and that have to be caught first on light rods and tackle, before putting them back into the water alive on heavier equipment, to attract the bigger species. These bait fish will die when taken by the target species but they are part of the natural diet of the bigger predators already, so in terms of food chain balance, I suggest this will have zero impact.
Occasionally – and it is very occasionally, you will have to take my word on it – a large, target fish will die as a result of shock or stress when caught. This is a carefully managed, catch-and-release event that takes every effort and measure possible to minimise stress and injury but, in the event the worst happens, even dead fish are returned to the water. I hope I don’t now need to labour the inarguable point that crocodiles in the Nile live predominately on fish and I think it unlikely that they express a preference to live or recently deceased food. So, the odd dead perch immediately re-enters the food chain, from whence of course it comes and within which it normally exists.
Boat engines create noise and hydrocarbon pollution, don’t they? Of course, and this is a downside that is difficult to mitigate in an area where counter-active tree planting or the like cannot be undertaken for ecological reasons. However, while in the park we all drive cars or sit in buses or aeroplanes that churn out pollution; there are usually three or even four people in each boat whose engine is generally only running when moving to, from or between fishing sites and whose occupants, by default, are not therefore driving a car (usually with just one or two persons in it!) or sitting in a plane. Yes, there will be a degree of pollution, noise and disturbance but I would suggest it’s worth the minimal ecological damage potential for the conservation and community benefits supported by the financial reward.
Occasionally, a carelessly cast hook, lure or lead weight will be lost in a tree or in the river itself. If all the tackle lost in this event annually was weighed, I doubt it would total 5kg, but the impact is acknowledged nonetheless.
No doubt there is a some clever eco-software available that could put all this and any other impacting factors overlooked here into a form that would indicate how far one side or the other of the “carbon-neutral divide” this event lies, notwithstanding the fact that some of the payback is of the social responsibility (the school) and not the ecological kind.
However, let me add a final “big one” for you all to think about. The donations of motorbikes, boats, engines and more to UWA over the years, by MFIFT, UCF and other organisations too of course, enables UWA to do its job of policing and enforcement on the water and its surrounding land mass. UWA have caught hundreds of poachers fishing within the parks boundaries, burnt boats and illegal nets/long-lines and secured the convictions of many transgressors. Poachers do not take the risks involved with illegal activity – especially in areas where there is little likelihood of reward – lightly, so we can safely assume they “reap big” from these waters at Murchison. “What a load of old tosh,” I hear some say, “it’s a huge river and they will have no significant impact.” Oh, really? In the last decade, and I suggest as a direct result of the equipment donated by MFIFT and others, coupled with the increased focus in the minds of the park guardians that this event promotes, catches in this comp have gone up five-fold and I can assure you, it’s not due to the improved fishing skills of the average participant!
It goes beyond the simple accessibility to enforcement kit though. The money being generated and the direct, tangible support of organisations such as the school, that directly impacts on the lives of UWA employees, has focused additional attention on what an incredible, marketable asset the river, and its contents, is. Anglers fish the Nile at Murchison all year round – although maybe not to the density and intensity of the MFIFT event, it’s true – so this is a continuous stream of revenue. Poach it out and that entire income stream dries up, from “source to sea”.
We are all learning more about what goes on in this incredible eco-system with each passing year and, in what must be viewed as a perverse manner to some, the fishing tournament brings a high-level focus that no other event throughout the rest of year can hope to achieve. Through the event, the river draws attention to itself, it raises its own money which is then used, in part, to help protect it. It focuses minds from all sections of society to safeguard this wonderful, eminently sustainable asset for sporting, ecological and recreational reasons. I don’t think that can be a bad thing and I support just about anything that is reasonable, sustainable and being done in moderation. Including, of course, moderation………
When Raymond finally closed the 2016 event, three days later on the Saturday evening (before we all sat down to watch the best rugby team on the planet, England, win again in their 6 Nations clash, with an accompanying cold bottle or two of Nile Special, kindly supplied by the event title sponsors), almost two tonnes of target fish had been caught and released. Last year’s already-spectacular records were eclipsed, all four target species had been caught and this continuing upward trend was widely applauded. That the overall winner was Paul Goldring – whose business and livelihood depends in part on the health of the Nile at Murchison to support his safari company – I believe speaks volumes. It’s gratifying that Senior Conservation Area Manager Tom Okello and his team have heeded the declining catch warning signals as provided by this event in years gone by, this drop undoubtedly due to poaching and the knock-on effects of diminishing stocks. They have taken the equipment, financial and moral support offered and used it very effectively, a clear demonstration of cross-party collaboration being used to solve a common problem. At the end of the day, although it doesn’t really need saying, UWA are, of course, the custodians of this stretch of river, on behalf of the people of Uganda; the majority of the fishermen are welcome – but occasional – visitors. Don’t forget though that this group of sport fishermen (a number of them are regulars in the park) and the UWA staff between them, almost certainly know more about this hugely important stretch of water than the rest of the planet combined. They, respectively, don’t want their playground, or their occupations, reputations and incomes ruined either.
Let’s spare a final thought for the poacher, currently sitting long-faced in court in handcuffs or languishing in some less-than-comfortable jail, now with a criminal record to his name, who may well have just been trying to provide for his family. His actions may well have been the same as you or I would have done in similar circumstances, though this fact cannot and does not condone illegal activity or usurp the need to protect these fragile areas. The Victoria Nile flows outwards into Lake Albert, where commercial fishing does go on legally. If the protected stretch of the Nile in the park remains duly protected, at least there is a source of replenishment stocks. Fish out that stretch of supply water too and there will be nothing left for anyone, including the aforementioned croc, which will then start to look more closely at the legal fisherman further downstream for his lunch………..
I’d better not start on another eco-conflict story now, as people might think I’m trying to shift fence-sides. In truth, this is one subject area where I believe I can safely sit right atop the metaphorical fence and chirp alternately to those on either side, but I hope that, through this reasoned argument, I have allowed you to move closer to the centre ground too and to appreciate the opposing view, whichever side of the fishing-versus-conservation divide you currently find yourself in. Does that make me a card-carrying liberal? I do so hope not.
This event would not be possible without our various, very generous sponsors:-
Nile Special, Rwenzori Mineral Water, Murchison River Lodge, Yamaha Limited, Uganda Oxygen Ltd, Sadolin Paints, Goodyear Tyres, Classic Africa Safaris, Equator Catering Ltd, UWA, Wild Frontiers, Nile River Explorers, Compuscan, Toyota Uganda Limited, Expedition Outfitters, East African Fisheries Ltd, East African Underwriters, Moringa Ogilvy, The Eye Magazine, Mutoni Construction, Captain Andy’s, African Wine Traders, Bwana Tembo Lodge and last but not least Playing Hooky in Uganda (don’t ask…….)
It is also necessary to thank the event directors, Georgie More and Pete Baldwin for again organizing such a polished and enjoyable event and to Peter Bowser for personally donating the “Hidden Weight” prize.