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Fish hunters find species protection a bigger fish to fry

By Nguyen Dong   December 11, 2021 | 05:00 pm PT
Several residents who hunt a cyprinid (carp) species in central Vietnam are now volunteers to protect it as it teeters on the verge of extinction.

At 31, Bui Hoai Vu, a Da Nang City resident (Hoa Bac Commune, Hoa Vang District) is one of the most skillful hunters of the Onychostoma gerlachi, a species of cyprinid fish that inhabits inland wetlands in China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

Vu said it was a long-standing tradition among locals in the villages of Ta Lang and Gian Bi in Hoa Bac to hunt this particular fish and the hunting skills were passed down through generations.

To catch the fish, the hunters used a homemade gun with a rubber band connected to a sharp iron spear. They would only shoot the full-grown fish, letting the others go.

To get the right one, hunters had to hold their breath, dip their heads into the stream, watch closely, take careful aim and pull the trigger.

In many cases, they dived four-five meters under to catch the fish.

"We only caught it for food, not for any commercial purpose," said Vu.

The Onychostoma gerlachi in Hoa Bac Commune of Hoa Vang District in Da Nang City. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Dong

The Onychostoma gerlachi in Hoa Bac Commune of Hoa Vang District in Da Nang City. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Dong

He said the fish was a specialty with its tasty meat and because it was available abundantly in nature, locals could hunt it down for food all year round and still "ensure sustainability."

But the situation has changed drastically over the past decade, Vu rued.

As the fame of the cyprinid fish in Hoa Bac spread widely, many people from other places began catching it using electricity and explosives, killing large quantities all at once. This was not sustainable anymore.

The situation even got worse after a 30 km (18.6 miles) route from downtown Da Nang to Hoa Bac was upgraded, luring more visitors to the mountainous commune. As more tourists come, restaurants rushed to serve the best local specialty: the cyprinid fish.

As demand for the fish kept rising, its stocks kept depleting.

These days, because the fish has become scarce, its market price has jumped from VND280,000 to VND400,000 ($17.64).

The more expensive the fish, the fewer of them there are in nature.

Vu said that in the past, he could hunt ten kilos of fish per day, but the catch has dwindled down to just one kilo. As a tour guide, Vu takes tourists trekking along streams for hours. These days he finds it difficult to show them the famed carp in the wild.

Thu, the owner of a grocery store in Hoa Bac, said around two decades ago, a local could accidentally step on a cyprinid when wading through a stream. The fish was a regular source of food for many families in the commune, she said.

As a child, she and other kids in the neighborhood gathered to catch the fish together and grilled them on charcoal, Thu recalled wistfully.

"Kids these days can never get such an experience," she said.

Thu points at a stream area where there used to have many Onychostoma gerlachi in the past in Hoa Bac Commune. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Dong

Thu points at a stream area where there used to have many Onychostoma gerlachi in the past in Hoa Bac Commune. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Dong

Late last month, Vu joined other local residents at the house of Dinh Van Nhu, a local official, for a meeting to set up a volunteer team of around 30 members to protect and sustainably exploit the Onychostoma gerlachi fish.

The project has been initiated by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) in collaboration with local authorities. The GEF describes itself as the largest multilateral trust fund focused on enabling developing countries to invest in nature, supporting the implementation of major international environmental conventions on biodiversity, climate change, chemicals, desertification and other similar topics.

Most of the volunteers participating in the project are fish hunters like Vu. They know all the streams in the area like the back of their hands, which would help them in their new job – protecting their erstwhile prey.

The volunteers have to check and report wrongdoings like the use of electricity and explosives or nets with small mesh sizes in fishing. They can report these violations immediately or take pictures for local authorities to handle.

Volunteers of a team to protect and sustainably exploit the Onychostoma gerlachi fish receive homemade gun with a rubber band connected to a sharp iron spear, a tool to catch only the full-grown fish from Truong Thanh Nhan, deputy chairman of Hoa Bac Commune, November 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Dong

Volunteers of a team to protect and sustainably exploit the Onychostoma gerlachi fish receive homemade gun with a rubber band connected to a sharp iron spear, a tool to catch only the full-grown fish from Truong Thanh Nhan, deputy chairman of Hoa Bac Commune, November 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Dong

Chu Manh Trinh, Project Team Leader of GEF Hoa Bac, who has been successful with a project to conserve stone crabs in Cham Island off the central province of Quang Nam, said that in order to conserve the Onychostoma gerlachias well as other fish species in the area, local people have to use traditional tools in fishing and avoid catching them during the breeding season.

Truong Thanh Nhan, deputy chairman of Hoa Bac Commune, said if it had not been for the pandemic, the team to conserve and ensure sustainable exploitation of the Onychostoma gerlachi fish would have been established earlier.

The commune authorities are expected to send volunteers to the Cham Island to learn from the model of stone crab conservation there. One of the crucial steps is ensuring that only crabs that have grown to full size are caught and consumed.

Nhan said that difficulties have arisen in protecting the fish as it lives in streams and there is no way to ban people from fishing it all the time.

Hoa Bac has emerged as an attractive tourist destination thanks to its cool climate and charming scenery, as also a place where the culture of the Katu ethnic group is well preserved.

If the Onychostoma gerlachi fish is well preserved, there would be one more reason to lure visitors to the commune on eco-friendly tours.

Once this is done, locals will have more income from tourism services and have another source of consumers for their farm products.

However, he cautioned: "The fish is a species that cannot be farmed; only found in nature, so if it is caught freely without any restrictions, the source will soon run dry."

 
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