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Sport fishing as conservation tool for Guyana's unspoiled environment

In the backwaters of Guyana, a public-private partnership is putting a new twist on that old development proverb about teaching a man to fish so he can feed himself for a lifetime: What if you throw the fish back in?

Well then, you may have the means to feed an entire village, a network of villages, perhaps an entire national industry. The partnership forged by USAID’s Guyana Trade and Investment Support (GTIS) project (managed by CARANA) with Costa Del Mar, a high-end US sunglasses maker, has piloted this branch of ecotourism—catch-and-release sport fishing—in a tiny Amerindian village called Rewa, hoping to kick-start a new level of conservation and rural income generation for Guyana. (Costa produced “Jungle Fish,” a half-hour documentary of its efforts, which are also getting sizeable industry press this year in Garden & Gun magazine and Field & Stream.)

(Photo: Courtesy of Costa del Mar)(Photo: Courtesy of Costa del Mar)

Of course, it helps if the fish is a 500-pound arapaima, the world’s largest freshwater fish, found in the wilds of Guyana, where it has been harvested to the point of endangerment. A photo with this “living fossil”—caught with a skinny fly rod, no less—is worth plenty to adventurous anglers, who travel far and spend around $5,000 apiece (not including the plane ticket) in their quest.

So discovered the GTIS project when helping expand ecotourism opportunities for Guyana, home to acres of unspoiled rain forest. In the US and Caribbean, catch-and-release sport fishing is increasingly a conservation tool because a fish becomes worth more alive than dead, said GTIS Director Patrick Henry. This means more unique fish in fisheries, drawing more anglers who pay for services provided by local communities—lodging, food, guiding, even souvenirs—not to mention taxes or permitting fees to cover fish stock assessments, fish tagging, rangers’ salaries and logistical support like boats.

Sport fishing is already a major economic and conservation driver in the US, where 40 million anglers generate $45 billion in retail sales, and one million jobs, while paying as much in taxes and permitting fees per year to support sport fishing as the entire federal budget of the Environmental Protection Agency.  Countries that have set up catch-and-release programs are reaping the benefit: anglers directly contribute 2.13% of Costa Rica’s GDP, and in the Bahamas spend 27.2% more and stay in country 28.8% longer than the average tourist.

(Photo: Courtesy of Costa del Mar)(Photo: Courtesy of Costa del Mar)

In Guyana, GTIS nurtured Costa’s conservation mission: connecting the company with Rewa Eco-Lodge, which with USAID financial and technical support already employs or engages services of 40 percent of this 200-person community.

“Sport fishing would be an awesome sustainable business for these guys,” said Costa’s VP for marketing, Al Perkinson, who screened “Jungle Fish” for CARANA and USAID employees in the spring of 2012. “[GTIS] helped us with the Guyana government, with regulations, relationships with villagers.... They’re helping build the framework so all this can happen.”

Much work remains to make sport fishing a development plank of the Government of Guyana: new protective laws and regulations, scientific stock assessments, licensing to pay for conservation measures and training—then expansion to other villages. But as “Jungle Fish” showed, Costa and GTIS have proven that this new economic-environmental model is difficult, but not impossible—much like hooking a quarter-ton fish with a rod and reel.

“We’re talking about a major shift here,” said GTIS’ Patrick Henry. “Stop extracting things, and conservation will pay you astronomically more.”

Published July 2012