14 October 2014

Story on Lao Traditional Fishing in the Mekong in Global Context

Just published a new story on The Curious Human: a comparative piece about traditional dipnet fishing in the USA in the Columbia River basin and dipnet fishing in Laos in the Mekong River. The two communities - the Yakima Nation and the Laos - use traditional fishing practices to harvest migrating fish in fast flowing rivers. The comparisons between the communities who have no contact between them are quite interesting. The threat that progress has on these practices, in both places, through water development, new fishing tools and techniques, changing policies, and increased populations is similar. That the Yakima are still fishing traditional fishing grounds in the Klickatat River amid the modernized sterile world around them gives testament to how dipnetting is not only a useful technique, but a preferable one. Hopefully despite modernization and development in cultures like the ones compared in Laos, will also retain their traditions and uses of the river. In the case in Laos, it will have to be in a different part of the river due to the related flooding of the area after the Xayaburi Dam is complete.

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Traditional Fishing: 2 Cultures, 2 Rivers

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KLICKATAT RIVER IN WASHINGTON. NON-NATIVE FISHERS (LOWER RIGHT) USE LINE AND HOOK FROM THE SHORE. © JENNIFER VEILLEUX 2014
I recently took a camping trip in the Columbia River Gorge, a few hours from where I live in Oregon. Summer is ending, the days are getting shorter, and the salmon have returned. Fishermen and hunters fill riverside campsites. Boats start their engines about 4:00 a.m. and gear is prepared the night before. The salmon are swimming upstream to spawn.
I had no real plan or agenda for my time in the Gorge. I had a vague timeframe to get back home. I thought about hiking the waterfalls. Instead, I pulled off the highway to see the visitor’s center at The Dalles dam. The center was closed, but a man in a white pickup truck pulled up while I was standing in the empty parking lot. He told me he is from the Umatilla Reservation and works as a fish biologist for the Warm Springs Reservation. After a long conversation about lampreythe dams, and the local tribal rights, he said, “If you have time, go over the bridge here [from Oregon to Washington over the Columbia River]. Drive west on the Washington side of the river. You will come into a small town of Lyle. Take a right where you see a sign for the Klickitat Trail. About 2 miles up the road you will see a two bridges, one is a footbridge. Stand on the bridge and look down. There, you will see the Yakima People fishing for salmon using traditional dipnets in the Klickitat River. It is one of the only places left in the Columbia River basin where Native People fish like this. You have to see it if you have never seen it before.”
I headed over the river, following his directions. I found the Klickitat Trail sign, drove up the road to the two bridges. I got out and looked over the edge of the bridge. There I found the deep ravine of the upper Klickatat River. I saw far below in a steep sided rock gorge, two men, one young, one old, fishing with long poled nets.
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TWO YAKIMA MEN FISH WITH DIPNET IN THE KLICKATAT RIVER © JENNIFER VEILLEUX 2014
The men took turns fishing. They were tied into a rope system by the waist, attached the the rocks behind them. I watched one man pull out a beautiful huge silver salmon. I noticed that the dip net had closed around the fish. The man brought the fish out of the water, hauled it onto the rocks, and took it from the netting. The fish flapped with incredible strength, beating the air and rocks with its tail. The man beat it over the head until the flopping turned into vibrating fins and finally into no motion. The fish, still, was shifted into a black bag waiting on the rock shelf.
The next man roped in. I watched as he patiently pulled his net on the long pole through the water. With each pass, the net began strung along the entire hoop and came out all bunched up at the far end. Each pass necessitated the need for the netting to be restrung around the hoop.
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SYL SPINO OF THE YAKIMA TRIBE HOLDS A 9 FOOT DIAMETER DIPNET. KLICKATAT RIVER, LYLE, WASHINGTON © JENNIFER VEILLEUX 2014
Long pole dipnetting. Klickatat River, Lyle, Washington © Jennifer Veilleux 2014
LONG POLE DIPNETTING. KLICKATAT RIVER, LYLE, WASHINGTON © JENNIFER VEILLEUX 2014
Syl Spino, a man from the Yakima tribe, got out of his car where he’d been watching me and approached to ask, “have they caught anything yet?” I said “yes, one.” He joined me to watch the two men below us fishing in silence. After ten minutes of this we started talking about the dip netting tradition.
Syl said he had just given a demo to his granddaughter’s class at school on the tools for dip netting. As he explained, the older man of the pair pulled in a fish with a bit of a struggle. It was huge. He did the same process as the young man had done before him. We watched and talked as he hauled in fish after fish. I speculated that there must have been a group of them running together upstream.
Syl offered to bring me to his car to show me the hoop, the metal netting material, the net making tool, and the needle that threads the netting. He had a wooden needle his grandfather made, and a replica metal needle he had made from the model. He wasn’t as happy with the replica. Syl explained that each net must be made of these separate parts and how much each piece of material costs. The hoop itself is fixed to a wooden pole. The wooden pole is fitted to a long aluminum pole. The poles can be 30 to 40 feet in length. I held the hoop to feel the weight and thought about the metal netting, the aluminum pole. “Do many women fish?” I asked. “There are a few,” he told me. Each fish weighs 25 to 35 pounds. No wonder why the men were roped in. I asked, and he explained it is a law that fishermen must rope in.
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FISH PASSAGE ON THE KLICKITAT RIVER, COURTESY OF YAKIMA/KLICKITAT FISHERIES PROJECT.
Syl suggested he could take me up some dirt roads to see a fish passage facility where his son works. The facility keeps track of the fish species, sex, and whether the Klickitat River fish returning to spawn are wild or farmed. Farmed fish have a clipped fin. The facility is new, a project between the Federal government and with the local support of tribal research on the migrating species upon which they traditionally depend. There are no catch limits for the Tribes. There are designated fishing areas, such as the one where we watched the fishing, where non-natives are not supposed to fish.
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LAO FISHERMEN FISHING WITH BAMBOO DIP NET MEKONG RIVER, LAOS, PDR © JENNIFER VEILLEUX 2013
The dipnet technique reminded me of similar fishing in the Mekong River that I learned about and even tried in Laos during my Xayaburi Dam field research. In a Lao village, I spoke with and interviewed fishermen about their livelihoods. One man taught me to hold and fish with a traditional bamboo dipnet. The net was pretty large and I thought a bit unwieldy. I didn’t catch anything, but enjoyed the meditative rhythm, and the possible chance of a catch with each pass. The fish the Lao fishermen were after were fingerling sized fish, though they explained that there were different fish migrating along the shore at different times.
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LAO FISHERMAN FISHING WITH BAMBOO DIP NET MEKONG RIVER, LAOS, PDR © JENNIFER VEILLEUX 2013
I find it curious that indigenous traditional cultures, two continents apart, have such similar fishing tools. Both communities in North America and Southeast Asia are using dipnets when the water is low, fishing from rocky outcrops, patiently scooping downstream with the current. Both the Lao village fishermen and the Yakima Nation fishermen are using materials purchased outside their community to build their nets. This type of fishing can be dangerous in both places—told to me during interviews with the Lao fishermen and apparent with the rope safety the Yakima fishermen are using. Both communities wait for the seasonal cycle fish migration, know when the fish migration should be depending on the rain, moon, temperature, water level, season and a slew of other triggers I know nothing about to predict the presence of the fish.
And in both communities, an ocean apart, fishermen are doing something taught to them by their grandparents, an activity they will teach their grandchildren.
However, traditional fishing, just like the fish themselves, is under pressure from modernization, progress, and development. Why would people still use the traditional dip netting process when more modern forms of fishing may yield a larger catch, an easier haul? What will happen to these traditions when there are no fish to migrate in a particular tributary, an area slated for traditional fishing? What will happen when younger generations decide that trolling in the main Columbia River is the only way to fish the salmon? What will happen when dams are installed in the Mekong River and fishing areas are flooded and lost?
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LAO FISHERMAN USING BAMBOO DIPNET IN THE MEKONG RIVER DURING DRY SEASON MEKONG RIVER, LAOS, PDR © JENNIFER VEILLEUX 2013
I breathed deeply before I drove away at sunset. I thought, here, just a few miles from the Columbia River – that endless migration of barges, cars, trains, fish, people, and water—here is a stillness, and a silence. Here is a tradition that reaches back through past time and I hope reaches well into future time—simple relationships between man and river, man and fish, river and fish.
Perhaps the presence of the Yakima Nation, the young man with the older man fishing with the dipnets is a sign of something persisting. This traditional practice has outlasted changes. There are still areas where modern development impacts haven’t completely obliterated the ebb and flow of water, the cycle of returning fish, and traditional knowledge and fishing practices.
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LAO BOY USING BAMBOO DIPNET IN THE MEKONG RIVER DURING DRY SEASON MEKONG RIVER, LAOS, PDR © JENNIFER VEILLEUX 2013

Oregon State's Terra Online Story of Development and Security Research on Ethiopia's Blue Nile River

My university included a story on a portion of my research into the development of the Blue Nile River through the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The publication is Terra, an online coverage that promotes research and research-related activities at Oregon State University. Local author Abby Phillips Metzger is a fantastic word weaver. Abby captured the complexity of the Nile River development in Ethiopia for Ethiopians throughout the country and the local Ethiopians who will be displaced.

Seeking the Headwaters of Peace

Will a massive dam in Africa bring conflict or cooperation?
A Gumuz woman at market day in the Blue Nile region of Ethiopia.
A Gumuz woman at market day in the Blue Nile region of Ethiopia. (Photos courtesy of Jennifer Veilleux)
BLUE NILE, Ethiopia – Can a massive dam on Ethiopia’s Blue Nile River become a “platform for peace” in the parched lands of Africa? Or will it instead spark new conflicts among neighboring nations? And what happens to the people whose homes will be submerged when the reservoir fills?
These are the kinds of questions Oregon State University Ph.D. student Jennifer Veilleux dug into during a five-month study along the African river where the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is under construction. Working with OSU Professor Aaron Wolf, an international expert on water conflict resolution, she was investigating the human dimensions of the dam’s development and, more broadly, the complex intertwining among peoples and waters the world over.
“Water is needed and shared by every sector of human society and by dependent ecosystems,” says Veilleux, who finished her Ph.D. in geology in June. “Water shapes the physical and human landscape. I want to find out how this resource can be cooperatively shared by different communities.”
To tease out the dynamics of water sharing among countries and cultures, the researcher interviewed both urban and rural Ethiopians, spending time particularly with the Gumuz people, a little-studied subsistence culture found mainly along the Blue Nile in Ethiopia and Sudan. Most of the 20,000 local people who will be displaced by the dam project are Gumuz, artisanal gold miners who trade with nearby communities. From the river they draw not only material sustenance, but also their very identity as a people.
So Veilleux was surprised at the flexibility, resolve and general acceptance voiced by the people she interviewed — a finding that runs counter to prevailing predictions of worldwide water wars as Planet Earth heats up and human populations mount. “I think the people had a very keen sense of being river people, meaning they are very adamant about staying near the water because it’s their everything, their life,” she says. “But I was surprised at how flexible they were about moving.”
Averting Water Wars
Two years ago, the online newspaper Aljazeera ran a stark headline: Almost half of humanity will face water scarcity by 2030. Similar stories have splashed across the front pages of major newspapers for nearly 20 years, with many predicting global water wars.
As a powerful new force in the ancient, life-sustaining relationship between people and water, the African dam presents huge opportunities as well as Headwaters Photo_Metzger_Photo_kids at pumpgrave challenges for Ethiopia. On one hand, it will provide reliable power. “Only about 40 percent of Ethiopia has electricity,” notes Veilleux, who manages the “transboundary freshwater dispute” database at OSU. “When complete, the massive, 6,000-megawatt dam will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa, expanding electricity coverage in Ethiopia and neighboring countries.”
It’s also a source of pride for Ethiopians, who are eager to shed the perception of being a famine-prone country in need of international aid, rather than an African leader with a middle-class economy, says Veilleux. “Dams are really big power symbols, not just for their capacity to harness energy, but as symbols of modernity and identity,” she says.
Cultural Risks
But while the Ethiopian government has a comprehensive resettlement program for the Gumuz, Veilleux’s research raises many important, and as-yet unanswered, questions: What will replace gold as a new source of cash economy? How will farming change without seasonal flooding? Will malaria rates increase with a stagnant reservoir? How will the dam change native fish stocks and the equipment needed to catch them? How will the Gumuz stay connected to other villages when the now-navigable river becomes an expansive lake? Will moving to an urban area lead to increased social problems related to modern life, such as a loss of cultural identity?
“If the dam project is done correctly, the Ethiopian government can greatly improve some of the challenges that the Gumuz communities face from malnutrition, disease or lack of access to secondary or higher education,” the researcher says. “Resource sharing will also improve the lives of Ethiopians who benefit from expanded electricity.”OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
But the cultural costs should not be ignored, she cautions. People’s ancient connection to the river has led to deep understandings about natural resources in the region — understandings that social scientists call “traditional ecological knowledge” or TEK— that can and should be tapped for the benefit of all.
“More attention needs to be spent on identifying the strengths as well as the vulnerabilities of local communities, to buffer possible threats to these areas, and to make sure that the benefits outweigh the costs.”
Find out more about Professor Aaron Wolf’s international conflict resolution work herehttp://ceoas.oregonstate.edu/profile/wolf/.
–Story by Abby Metzger, OSU College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences


03 September 2014

Launch of new science blog site not exclusively about water...but...

My friend and colleague Starre Vartan recently invited me to join her on the launch of a new science blog site, The Curious Human. We are teaming up to cover scientific stories that interest us and I hope to be able to cover things that extend beyond just my academic research. Please check out my first post which is starts with a story about gold panning in the soon-to-be displaced communities I visited during my research on the Nile and Mekong Rivers. I will cross-post here when the articles have anything to do with water resources.