Calming a Crowded Lake's Waters
Gabon's 'great lakes' are dangerously overfished. But communities are working together to develop sustainable fishing practices for the common good.
Freshwater fishing has sustained generations of Gabonese living on the shores of the country’s central lakes. Traditionally, it was a seasonal activity, only practiced when the rainforest was too wet for logging, or the crops too young for harvesting. The fishers who worked these waters decades ago tell stories of pulling up nets full of fat fish that reliably restocked their family’s finances for lean times.
Today, things are different. Small-scale logging has been heavily restricted, cutting people’s income from timber. There are not enough cleared fields to go around for farmers to make a living raising crops. So, to make ends meet, more and more people are paddling into Gabon’s lakes to try their hand at fishing.
This poses a major threat to livelihoods in lakeside communities. Without regulations on the types of nets or fishing methods that can be used, or the areas open to be fished, stocks plummet and struggle to breed back to former levels.
Community Organizations Help Mitigate the Effects of Increased Fishing Pressure
To manage these risks, people living around Lake Oguemoué have turned to The Nature Conservancy and its partners to help them form and expand community fishing associations. These groups gather people together and encourage them to follow a set of fishing practices for long-term, common good. Key to this endeavor is the work developed by TNC partner NGO, the Ecotourism Organization of Lake Oguemoué, known by its French acronym, OELO.
Oguemoué: Southernmost of Gabon's 'Great Lakes'
Supplied with fresh water from frequent rainfall and the mighty Ogooué river, Lake Oguemoué is the southernmost of four lakes that spread over approximately 40 square miles of this sparsely-populated, rainforest-covered central African country. Scattered villages — each with a dozen simple homes — dot the shores. Long wooden canoes and fiberglass skiffs are tied up in clusters on the beaches. Families here live in the same place for generations.
Seasonal Fishing Has Traditionally Sustained Lakeside Communities
Now and again, people go to the nearby towns or the capital, Libreville, for work, or they take to the forests to fell trees to sell timber. But what sustains lakeside communities over the long term here is fishing: both freshly cooked for the pot at home, and smoked to be sold to traders from town. During the fishing season — when the rains slow, and the spawn have grown into harvestable fish — large canoes worked by two fishers can bring in more than 200 pounds of catch in a single day. Crucially, though, fishing has always been seasonal. For long months when other ways of earning a living predominated, the lakes’ fish were left alone, and stocks recovered.
Changing Practices and Moving Populations Have Led to Overfishing
But in Gabon today, an increasing number of people are arriving to the lakes of central Gabon to try to reap the rewards of fishing as other livelihoods shrink, or to feed more mouths in their families. These newcomers use efficient but ultimately very damaging practices like tabou or eroca — smacking the water with a long pole or revving a boat engine to frighten fish towards nets. They use nets with mesh so small that it traps females and juveniles. And they go deep into the breeding areas even during spawning season. In short order, lakes including Oguemoué are becoming dangerously overfished.
Conservancy Partner OELO Is Collecting Data to Better Understand Changes in Fish Stocks
“We had been seeing the catch reduced year by year and we were asking ourselves why, and what could be done about it,” says Franck Bengone, the president of a fishing association here called Amven, which means patience. “Then OELO came and started doing studies to answer these questions exactly. Now we know the problem is overfishing and these bad methods of fishing.”
OELO is the brainchild of Cyrille Mvele, a Gabonese environmentalist and community organizer who grew up on Lake Oguemoué, and Heather Arrowood, an American wildlife ecologist from Wisconsin. Founded in 2010, and now supported with funding and technical advice by The Nature Conservancy, its aim is to protect the lake and its environment for future generations.
Communities Are Implementing Science-Based Fishing Regulations
Cyrille and Heather are organizing previously loose and ineffective groups of fishers into legally-recognized associations, while TNC provides advice on scientifically-proven ways to conserve fish stocks. That allows OELO to call on back-up from the authorities to sanction anyone breaking the rules on the lake. Key early steps have been to investigating the optimum net mesh size that still brings in decent hauls of fish while leaving breeding females and juveniles alone, the outlawing of fishing methods like tabou, and identifying “no-take zones” or fish sanctuaries that are off-limits to fishing in order for fish populations to regenerate.
Data Collection and Community Buy-In Are Keys to Success
Critical to this project’s success has been the focus on collecting data on the changing state of Lake Oguemoué’s fish. Before, there was only anecdotal evidence to suggest that fish catches were dropping, opening the door to skepticism over the need to fish differently. Now, the numbers speak for themselves.
Martial Angwe, Amven’s accountant and lead data collector, born here on the lake, has the crucial job of keeping those records. He notes the species, sex, and weight of every catch landed by Amven’s fishers, as well as the price they will fetch at market. He’s clearly both deeply committed and deeply passionate about his work. “It’s very important to get this data,” he says. “Without it, we might not see the need to change, and then the fish will be all gone. People will leave the lake and all go to towns to live.”
Fishers Are Already Seeing Improvements As Better Practices Spread
“Already, OELO’s work with the fishers here is having a positive effect,” says Augustin Nzoghe, the deputy-chair of another Lake Oguemoué fishing association called Otiti. “We had been trying for a long time to form this association, and now with OELO, it is moving very quickly,” he says. It’s far easier to identify who has permission to use the lake now, to inspect their nets and compare them to the written rules, and to act against the ‘illegals,’ as he calls them. “If we put in practice changes now, we could have the benefits of this fishing for a long time,” he says. “But if we keep doing what we are doing now, we might see the benefits for two more years. Then what?” Fishers on other lakes are watching keenly, he says. It’s clear that if these ideas work here, they could be adopted across Gabon’s freshwater fisheries.
Challenges Remain, but Support Is Growing
It has not all been smooth sailing, however. Why should they change their ways, some reluctant fishermen ask, to protect an uncertain future? But for the changes really to work, everyone has to play by the rules. “Even if you have 15 or 20 people who accept, and only one or two refuse, it is a challenge to have everyone think the same way,” Augustin says. But Franck says there are signs a corner has been turned. “Those who were hesitant are finally coming on board because things are getting worse and worse and they see something has to be done,” he says.
Successful Strategies May Be Replicated Elsewhere in Gabon
As the support grows, the chance increases that this experiment in preserving an environment while safeguarding an industry will be successful. The initial results are encouraging. The Gabonese Fisheries Agency (ANPA in French) is now engaged as a partner in this project, and is interested in using the lessons learned from this pilot in other important inland fisheries in Gabon. “It is very exciting to see how the interest and efforts from a few fisher people, the dedication OELO has provided to this project over the years, and a few catalytic supports we provided has created this snowball effect,” says TNC Gabon Program Director Marie-Claire Paiz.
“The aim is that Oguemoué fish become famous and in demand across Gabon because they are bigger and better than anywhere else,” Heather says. “Following the rules and restrictions proposed by the local fishing associations is the way to make that happen.”
Read More: Take a journey to the center of Gabon with a group of scientists who are helping inform the country's development and conservation decisions.