Protecting the Last Taimen Rivers
Our business success indicator is: “Do our actions promote and enhance the conservation of taimen and associated habitats?”
As a Mongolian company working with Mongolian communities, we are now responsible for helping to protect two Taimen Sanctuaries. These large, wild rivers are home to some of the world’s last remaining healthy taimen populations.
Taimen have existed in Mongolia for at least forty-million years. Unfortunately, over the past thirty years, nearly all of Mongolia’s taimen populations have been destroyed. Foreign and Mongolian anglers with giant treble hooks and little conservation awareness descend upon the rivers, mortally harming or outright killing taimen. Trout and grayling are over-harvested, starving taimen from their primary food source. Giant fish consume plastic trash and other contaminants and expire. Stream side development, land degradation, mining, and pollution destroy habitat.
Even the handful of wild river systems that still maintain healthy taimen populations – like the ones where we fish and are responsible to protect – are under constant threat. Taimen require extremely large, ecologically intact watersheds to survive. Taimen need wilderness.
Please continue reading and/or give us a shout if you’re interested in learning more about this innovative conservation initiative.
The effort to save Mongolia’s taimen from extinction is supported by many partners.
We work very closely with local communities to protect these rivers. Nearly all of the MRO/FM staff live in these taimen watersheds and they are each taimen conservation ambassadors. Our local partners include herding families living along the rivers, schools, health care facilities, wildlife enforcement authorities, and local government agencies. We are in constant contact with and provide substantial support to Soum (county) wildlife rangers.
Our conservation partners include a host of national level government organizations. We have a Memorandum of Understanding with the Mongolian Academy of Sciences for collaborative scientific and conservation work. We coordinate very closely with national level protected area administrations, environmental agencies, and tourism authorities.
We partner with a number of international NGOs either through their international offices or local representative offices. These folks are some of the world’s most respected fisheries science and conservation professionals. We are lucky to have their support. Our primary international institutional partners include: The Wild Salmon Center, BioRegions International, World Wildlife Fund, and The Nature Conservancy.
The international fly-fishing community is a very supportive and valued conservation partner. Patagonia and Orvis have each contributed to our conservation programs over the years. The Yellow Dog Community Conservation Foundation has generously funded numerous Healthy Taimen Festivals. Fly Fisherman Magazine has been very generous, organizing a large fund-raising event with us based upon Ross Purnell’s epic adventure and documentary: “One Path: The Race to Save Mongolia’s Giant Salmonids.”
The most vital conservation partners are the anglers who choose to travel to Mongolia each year to fish with us. Without the support of our guests, Mongolian taimen would very likely not survive. Every person who travels with us is a cherished member of our taimen conservation partnership. Many guests go beyond the trip and donate their time and money to taimen conservation. We are very grateful for everyone’s support. If you’re interested in contributing to taimen conservation, please reach out or simply make a tax-deductible donation for taimen conservation via this Wild Salmon Center link.
We hope our partnership’s example at these two rivers inspires community-based restoration and conservation of taimen across northern Mongolia and beyond.
Our conservation program is organized around five platforms: habitat conservation, science, public awareness, community incentives, and regulations/enforcement.
1. Habitat Conservation
MRO/FM works to protect taimen habitat at the watershed level, making certain both sanctuaries are managed in their entirety for the benefit of taimen. Our efforts have resulted in 9 individual Soums (counties) working in partnership with MRO/FM to protect approximately 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) of taimen habitat. The first “taimen sanctuary” was established in 2008. The second in 2015. Streamside set-backs regulate development. Hatcheries, dams/diversions, and the use of motorboats are not allowed. Both are designated catch and release fly fishing only, with a single barbless hook.
We continue to work to improve upon the taimen sanctuary model and are vigilant to continual threats to the integrity of these river systems despite the taimen sanctuary designation. We’ve helped spot-light and reverse several proposals over the years from various “scientists” and “outfitters” plotting small-scale hatchery projects. Local communities want to protect their taimen and their rivers. Yet these small villages and local herders must regularly combat threats posed by outsiders attempting to pursue activities such as poorly regulated mining activities, industrial scale agriculture, dams, unsustainable transport and tourism infrastructure investments that will be detrimental to long-term taimen survival.
MRO/FM promotes and supports science to inform conservation decision-making. Over the years we have assisted and implemented a host of science initiatives. These include several marked recapture studies, genetics studies, and annual redd counts to understand taimen populations and spawning behavior. The data we have collected with our guests is some of the most rigorous information on taimen and taimen populations. This peer-reviewed data continues to show the value of the innovative conservation model.
Our river teams and guests work right alongside scientists from the Mongolia Academy of Sciences and the Wild Salmon Center. If you join one of our trips, there is a good chance that one of these globally recognized science experts will be at camp. Most of this work is headed up by Dr. Mendee from the Academy and National Geographic fellow, Dr. Matt Sloat, who works with the Wild Salmon Center.
We have a long list of fascinating projects on-going. Many are now focused upon the nexus between taimen populations and climate change, making certain decisions are being made to provide taimen with the adaptive capacity required to survive.
To read more about our recent science work with the Mongolia Academy of Sciences and Wild Salmon Center, please visit here.
3. Public Awareness
The public awareness program started a long time ago with a simple idea of engaging local communities along the river with a conservation postcard. We wanted to help communities understand the national and international significance of taimen and what we could all do to help protect this amazing species. Our guides and camp staff would simply stop and engage local residents, hand them an information card, and talk to them about taimen biology and taimen conservation. Things have grown substantially since that little effort.
MRO/FM has a high level of media exposure with messaging focused upon taimen conservation. We have supported films, articles and social media reaching hundreds of thousands nationally and globally.
Mongolia River Outfitters and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) designed, raised funding for and jointly implemented a Rare Pride Campaign. We took the postcard concept and amplified it to eleven. This local – and eventually national – campaign promoted appreciation for taimen, advanced catch-and-release fishing, and motivated improved management and habitat conservation. This highly successful program has become a model for fisheries conservation globally. Ten years later and one can still find posters, stickers, and billboards all over the country promoting taimen conservation.
An important result was the identification of local “poachers” and the organizing of these poachers into NGO “fishing clubs”. Each local fishing club now supports sustainable fishing practices, including catch and release and single barbless hooks. The fishing clubs are highly effective taimen river keepers, helping to inform and monitor non-resident Mongolian anglers. The “poachers” are now “protectors” working to make certain taimen survive for the next generation of local anglers to enjoy.
We still work very closely with local communities every day, but the level of engagement is much more diverse. We work through formal workshops, meetings, reports, and river management planning. During the covid-pandemic, our staff was out on the river (well isolated) working with local wildlife officials to construct and strategically place tasteful, wooden signboards at river crossing points to make certain all visitors are aware of the taimen sanctuary designation and special rules that apply. Our staff meets regularly with schools, fishing clubs, tourism organizations, and government agencies. And yes, we still conduct stream side stakeholder education.
4. Community Incentives
We are very proud to be considered the world’s best example of how to use sustainable fly-fishing to create incentives for community-based engagement and the conservation of large landscapes.
Traditionally most Mongolians have a high level of respect for nature. However, few people in these communities saw any tangible benefit from the conservation of taimen. We set out to change that.
The few people who live within the world’s last remaining taimen watersheds generally rely upon natural resource use and have relatively low-income levels. Therefore, safeguarding taimen requires assisting local communities to recognize the social and economic value of taimen conservation. Properly managed and implemented catch and release fly-fishing represents a unique and innovative opportunity to generate value, incentivize pro-conservation behavior, support science and inform decision-making, galvanize community support, and ultimately help to ensure the survival of wild rivers and taimen.
This conservation approach must be professionally managed so that tourism remains part of the solution and does not become part of the problem. For instance, the impacts of fly-fishing on taimen have been studied extensively. Scientists have found that professionally managed fly-fishing is entirely safe for taimen populations and can be a highly effective conservation tool so long as angler pressure is well administered; habitat disturbance is limited; only a single, barbless hook is used; and, the fish is handled and released properly.
Our operations allow MRO/FM to provide many dozens of local community members with good paying jobs that are based upon nature conservation, not nature exploitation. All of these local staff persons now help to support their families by helping to conserve taimen. Doing something “good” is a source of opportunity and pride for local community members.
Every angler on one of our fishing trips must hold a taimen permit. These permits – included in the trip costs – represent approximately US$500 per angler. That means every year a very large sum of money generated from taimen conservation goes directly into local Soum (county) budgets. These funds make a huge difference for local communities, making up critical budget short-falls required to support local schools and other community services.
MRO/FM generates additional conservation value through donations and volunteers. We support scholarship programs for local students, training and capacity programs, and provide critically needed emergency funding for Soums and protected areas.
Every year, we sponsor river clean-up campaigns. Until about ten years ago, garbage was largely unknown on these rivers. Now we are seeing an increasing amount of plastic waste often washed into the rivers from a couple of upstream tributaries. It’s not much, but it’s important to not have any. Taimen are attracted to things like white plastic bags. They will consume this waste and expire. Now every single spring after run-off, our guides and local staff organize with community members and government officials floats down each river to pick up any trash.
Our “flagship” incentive program is the annual “Healthy Taimen Festival”, conducted in partnership with BioRegions International. Health professionals who also happen to be enthusiastic anglers along with Mongolian health professionals volunteer their services to local school children before joining a scheduled MRO/FM fly fishing adventure. Typically, 200 – 300 school children receive health screenings and treatments from doctors, dentists, and dental technicians at these multi-day events. The Healthy Taimen Festivals are a celebration of all things taimen and include games and conservation education programs. Local school kids also receive much appreciated supplies for their upcoming school year.
We are now initiating a farm to table program. MRO/FM prepares over 14,000 individual meals each year. Our chefs purchase most meat from local providers. However, much of our fresh produce has historically from the capital city. We are now supporting local communities and NGO’s to identify opportunities to grow basic fresh produce as a means to diversify local economies, improve nutrition, and drive a greater percentage of spending into local households.
5. Regulation and Enforcement
MRO/FM supports enforcement and regulatory improvements to directly address threats and build better behaviors.
We are instrumental in making certain that policies properly recognize and address threats to taimen populations, including entry onto Mongolia’s IUCN Red List. This listing means that taimen receive additional protection measures and attention. This also means that the national government – and not the local governments – are responsible for management decisions and permitting. One advantage of this is that taimen should be managed at a large landscape level that reflects taimen habitat needs – remember, an individual taimen will use 100 km or more of river each year – rather than an individual Soum (county) or Aimag (state) level.
Working with visionary members of the government, parliament, and our NGO partners, we have help to draft and secure the passage of of a host of taimen conservation policies and regulations. A few examples include:
- National taimen conservation and permitting regulations
- Watershed conservation strategies
- Improved protected area legislation
- Taimen conservation and recovery management plans
- National catch/release and single-barbless hooks only legislation
Yes. That is correct. No one in Mongolia can legally fish for taimen using a barbed hook, a treble hook, a double hook or even a “stinger”. All taimen must be released safely back into the river.
We engage closely with and support Mongolia’s national tourism council and their efforts to promote nature-based tourism. This includes working with these parties and our conservation partners to advance improved tourism policy and regulations.
Unfortunately, not everyone follows the rules. And, sadly, the more taimen fishing in Mongolia is promoted through social media, the more unscrupulous anglers seem to show up following the breadcrumbs. Mongolia is not a DIY country. These taimen conservation programs have been meticulously designed for decades by a collaborative group of government, community, NGO, and private actors. The programs are meant to specifically and carefully conserve and recover taimen and associated habitats. This includes making certain that high-end, low-impact fly fishing tourism is designed to maintain high quality service and experience, low fishing pressure, and consistent community benefits.
Recognizing that we want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem, our staff works year-round to support wildlife law enforcement efforts. MRO/FM provisions enforcement officers with equipment, uniforms, and cash for operations. Mongolia is a big place and challenging to patrol. Some of the most effective members of the wildlife enforcement team are local herding families. These folks live on the land and are always keeping a watchful eye. They all know who is legal and who is not legal. They all know our operations and many of them work for our operations. They are the eyes and ears on the river, reporting miscreants to wildlife law enforcement officials who are trained and equipped to act swiftly and effectively.
In an era when biologists struggle to assign financial value to endangered species—and nature’s blessings have been re-branded as ecosystem services—people who like to catch fish with bits of foam and feather represent a rare demographic.
Nobody has to convince this group that native fish, clean water, and pristine landscapes are precious commodities. In fact, some might rather fore-go the word commodity altogether, given its association with prices and markets, to argue instead that the world’s finest fly fishing destinations are holy places, shrines, temples in which humans have both rights and duties. The right to worship. And the duty to protect.
But like any religion, fly fishing remains bound to certain earthly realities. When the church needs a new foundation, then it’s time to launch a capital campaign. That capital comes partly from the international anglers who visit each season. Which is as it should be. Relatively modest sums, allocated wisely, can go a long way in rural Mongolia.
– Peter Fong. Head-guide, MRO/FM