Protecting the Last Taimen Rivers
Background and Objective
At Mongolia River Outfitters and Fish Mongolia (MRO/FM), 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 of the world’s last remaining healthy taimen populations and the wild rivers that sustain them. Both rivers have been designated as Taimen Sanctuaries.
Protecting these fish and rivers is a year-round endeavor and a team effort. Every angler who travels with us is a highly valued member of that team. Many of our guests donate their time and money to taimen conservation. We are very grateful for everyone’s support.
The international fly-fishing community has been very supportive. Patagonia and Orvis have contributed to our conservation programs over the years. The Yellow Dog Community Conservation Foundation has generously funded numerous Healthy Taimen Festivals.
If you’re interested in contributing to taimen conservation, please visit here.
The Challenge and Opportunity
Taimen are a long-lived, top-tier predator. They are the largest of all salmonids. An individual taimen’s home range often exceeds one-hundred kilometers. A taimen requires seven years to reach sexual maturity and up to forty years to reach 1.25 meters. They exist in relatively low abundance even in healthy river systems. Their survival depends upon extensive, pristine cold river systems with a healthy prey base.
Taimen once inhabited a broad swath of the northern hemisphere. Now only a handful of wild river systems maintain healthy taimen populations and many of these are under severe threat. Although the habitats of remaining taimen fisheries are distinct, each faces similar conservation opportunities and challenges.
Habitat degradation and overharvest of taimen and/or taimen prey species are the primary threats. Taimen are very sensitive to human disturbance. Unsustainable timber harvest, mining, over-grazing, pollution, dams, irrigation, and hatcheries quickly deplete taimen fisheries.
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. Safeguarding these taimen strongholds often requires assisting local communities to recognize the social and economic value of taimen conservation.
Properly managed and professionally implemented “high value – low impact” catch and release sport fishing represents a unique and innovative opportunity to generate value, incentivize pro-conservation behavior, support science and informed decision-making, galvanize community support, and ultimately help to ensure the survival of wild rivers and taimen. This conservation package must be managed carefully so that tourism remains part of the solution and does not become part of the problem.
We work with many individuals and organizations to help protect these special places.
This includes local herders, communities, schools, enforcement authorities, and conservation agencies. Nearly all of the MRO/FM staff come from these communities. These folks are all taimen conservation ambassadors.
Our science work is done under an MoU with the Mongolian Academy of Sciences. We are in constant contact with and provide substantial support to Soum (county) wildlife rangers. We work very closely with national level protected area administrations.
We also work 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:
Our Conservation Program
The 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.
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.
There’s much work left to be done to safeguard these places for future generations.
We hope you’ll join our efforts!