The making and use of traps for fishing in wetland ecosystems in southeastern Nigeria
Fishery conservation, fishery engineering, fishery equipment, fishery management, fishing, food security
Introducing the practice
The practice is most common among the inhabitants who live adjacent to the wetlands formed by the tributaries of the Idemili and Niger Rivers, which stretch for over 80 km between Obosi and Ihiala in southeastern Nigeria. The practices reported here were observed in Oba, a town on the Ose River. People who live in this town derive many benefits from the resources of the wetland ecosystem. The resources they extract include drinking water, fish, palm wine, firewood and wildlife as well as wild fruits and vegetables. These resources play important roles in the social and cultural life of the community. For instance, fish and palm wine are indispensable elements in marriage and burial ceremonies.
Trap fishing from the Ose River dates back many generations, certainly as far back as the 18th century. It is important because freshwater fish and forest wildlife have been the only major sources of protein for the people of the community.
Fishing is a year-round activity. Small trap fishing is usually done during the rainy season, from April to October, when the tide is high and there is a lot of water in the forest ecosystem. Big trap fishing is done during the dry season, from November to March, when bigger fish that come in with the tide are left behind in small pockets of water in the forest when the tide recedes. Fishing for different species of fish requires different sizes and types of traps. Rather it is the species of fish caught that is seasonal. For example, the eel is caught using small traps mainly in the rainy season (March-September) while catfish and other large fish are caught with bigger traps mainly during the dry season (October-February). The practice involves knowing how to make the right trap for the right season, and knowing where in the ecosystem to place the trap in order to catch the desired fish.
The materials for the trap are derived solely from the raffia palm. They consist of solid strands for the body of the trap and fibres for holding the strands in place. The strands are obtained from the midrib of the compound leaf (frond). This is scraped and split into long strands according to the size of the trap. Strands of about 0.5 mm wide and 100 cm long are used for medium to large traps and strands of 0.5 mm wide and 50 cm long for small traps. The former are used for dry-season fishing while the latter are used for rainy-season fishing. The strands are smoothed with sharp knives and bundled in readiness for use. Fibres for tying are extracted from the base of young raffia palm fronds and arranged in pairs in readiness for use.Actual trap-making involves twisting pairs of fibres over the raffia strands in a figure-eight fashion. A mat-like product results when fibres are twisted over strands at regular intervals. When enough strands have been linked to form a sizeable mat, the mat is folded so that the two ends join up to make a cylindrical shape. The frond of a young raffia palm can also be used as a tying fibre if it is split lengthwise into four parts. The flexible stem of a climber plant is used to make a circular frame, which is slipped into the cylindrical trap and tied firmly to the trap using the same fibre. This gives the trap a firm shape and frame. A conical door is made from tied strands and attached to the trap as an entrance. Another such door is placed midway into the cylindrical trap. The door has its base at the entrance to the trap and its apex inside the trap. With this design, the doors allow fish to enter but prevent them from getting out again. The rear end of the trap is tied with the same fibre. The tying gives the trap its characteristic conical shape.
Figure 1. Small trap
Small traps are placed along the bank of a shallow river or in discoloured pockets of water for trapping small fish like the eel. Earthworms are used as bait, but the worms are not alive as they are when used with hooks. One earthworm is attached to the trap using the midrib of an oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) frond, in the manner of a barbecue. As many worms as possible are squeezed through this stick, squashed and attached to the inside wall ofthe trap so that fish cannot reach them from outside the trap. The squeezing and squashing of the worms sends secretions into the water which attract fish to the trap. The number of fish caught depends on average yields in that particular ecosystem, on the expertise of the fisherman in placing and positioning the trap, and on the effectiveness of the bait.
Large traps are placed in stagnant ponds or pools inside the wetland or along the river banks in order to trap bigger fish such as catfish. These traps are used with or without earthworms, but experience shows that especially in flowing water, traps baited with earthworms catch more fish of many varieties than those without earthworms. The worms� secretions make the difference. These flow downstream and attract the fish. The entrance to the trap usually faces the current, which makes it easier for the fish to enter the trap.
Because it is the worms� secretions rather than the worms themselves that attract the fish, the bait remains effective even after the earthworm has been eaten by the first fish. The thrashing of the first fish captured also sometimes helps to attract more fish.
A big trap can catch as many as 15-20 catfish approximately 20-30 cm in length. A small trap can catch as many as 20 eels at a time. Traps attract all kinds of fish so that a single catch can be made up of three or four different species.
Figure 2. Big trap
Content and approach
The practice involves bundling the traps to be used for a day�s fishing and transporting them down to the river bank. There they are loaded into a canoe, which is paddled towards the site chosen for the day�s fishing. The traps are baited as necessary in the canoe. If the site is in a body or pool of water in the forest, the fisherman-entrepreneur leaves the canoe and wades into the forest to place the traps. Otherwise he selects a spot alongside the river bank. After clearing and preparing the site, the fisherman places the traps. He waits 30 minutes to an hour, in his canoe if possible, before checking the traps for fish.
The practice is labour-intensive, particularly the collection of the earthworms. Young boys of school age dig earthworms and sell them to fishermen, however. This is especially common where fishing is also done for recreation. But the other aspects of the practice are labour-intensive as well. The hard work is made worthwhile by the fact that trap fishing guarantees a fisherman at least some catch, whereas fishing with hooks can involve a whole day�s work that is rewarded with no catch at all.
This fishing method is ideally suited to the slow-moving streams and stagnant water of the wetland ecosystem. The fish live in pockets of water that are often discoloured from fallen leaves. These pockets often contain the tangle of mud, clay and roots of trees, shrubs and grasses that characterizes the wetland ecosystem. In such pockets of water you cannot use nets. You cannot use hooks either, because some of the fish species do not have the well developed mouthparts or eyesight needed to seize worms from hooks.
The Best Practice is manifest in that the only practical way to fish in such an ecosystem, where nets cannot be used and even canoes cannot move easily, is by using the sort of tailored-to-fit technology which only hooks, spears and traps can provide. But hooks and spears cannot always guarantee a catch, not even in a whole day of fishing. The trap therefore becomes the only sure tool to use since it never fails.
The practice is still in use today. This is because the making of the trap can be learned easily, the required materials are still available in the ecosystem, and fish remains the major source of protein for the people. In addition, the practice is not capital-intensive. Old people who have retired from active farming or from government service can engage in it. At the same time, schoolchildren can engage in this form of fishing using knowledge they acquire from their parents or older relations. The practice generates income, making it financially attractive. Although trap fishing requires the use of canoes, which are paddled for distances of ten kilometres or more along the river, these canoes are always available. Most households along the Ose River have canoes.
Trap fishing, like the other forms of fishing in this community (hook and spear fishing), is done only by males. They are of all ages, however. It is possible that women are excluded from trap fishing more because of the strenuous nature of the activity than because of any intention to discriminate along gender lines. This seems likely because women engage in basket fishing (the use of baskets to scoop vegetation and organic waste from the bed beneath stagnant water and to pick out any fish that might be trapped in the mesh). In addition, after the fish caught with traps are processed and smoked, they are sold mainly by women.
It is difficult to say whether or not the practice originated in the Oba community. The author learned it as a boy; his father said that his own father and grandfather had practised it. The practice is common among all communities in the Ose River system, which stretches along a distance of 80-100 km and includes other towns.
The purpose of the practice is first to provide fish as food and a source of protein for the people. Second, it is a form of self-employment that can generate much income if the fisherman-entrepreneur operates with multiple traps. Trap fishing is also a form of recreation for children during school holidays. It gives them the opportunity to paddle their canoes away from home, to explore the diversity of the ecosystem, to fish, swim, watch monkeys and other wildlife, and even to extract other natural resources from the ecosystem.
The role of indigenous knowledge
The practice in its entirety, from the making of the trap to the actual fishing, is an embodiment of indigenous knowledge. For instance, the collection of strands for making the trap frame requires knowledge of the quality of the plant. It must not be too brittle or it will snap while the trap is being made. The quality of the strands will also determine whether the traps made from it can last the entire fishing season. The fibres for making the trap are extracted from stems of raffia palms by people who know which age and type of plant will yield good-quality fibre. Inserting the trap�s conical doors requires knowledge of the shape and angle that will prevent the fish from escaping after they are caught. The application of knowledge about earthworm secretions is definitely indigenous knowledge, as is the knowledge of how to hook the worm and attach it to the trap so that fish cannot steal the bait from outside without entering the trap.
It is also indigenous knowledge that tells fishermen that it is not the earthworm itself that attracts fish, but the chemicals which the worm secretes from its body. Determining where to place the trap also has a lot to do with the fisherman�s knowledge of the types of water and habitat that suit particular species of fish.
The practice is embedded in the socio-cultural values of the people in the sense that some of the fish caught through trap fishing are required elements in certain traditional festivities in the community, including marriages. In addition, trap fishing is recreation or sport that is often undertaken during festivals that prohibit activities related to cultivation. On certain days, for example, the Ani fetish forbids everyone to harvest or even pick up anything from the ground. To avoid accidentally committing an abomination, people generally troop out to the riverside for trap fishing.
The transfer of knowledge
The techniques of trap making and trap fishing are known only to specialists. With the exception of females, anyone who is interested in learning the techniques can easily go to the specialists to be taught. The specialists are not paid for using their knowledge to make traps and to fish with them. Nor do they charge fees for teaching others. But if they make extra traps to sell, they do receive money for them.
Knowledge of trap making is generally transferred from father to son within a family that practises the tradition. A trap-maker can also teach a close friend or trusted relation. Fishing itself can also be learned from peers, age mates and friends who have made trap fishing a hobby or an income-generating activity.
This indigenous knowledge is not documented since most of those who possess it are older people who cannot read or write. Even now that educated youths are engaging in trap-making and fishing, it is still not documented. The knowledge is transmitted from person to person only by word of mouth and through practical demonstrations.
Achievements and results
The practice enhances the social welfare of the people and improves their health by providing them with a reliable and affordable source of protein. It also creates employment for members of the rural community, especially the aged and the relatively uneducated members of society who cannot easily find jobs in the urban areas. For the many people who cannot engage in profitable commercial activities�for example, people who have retired from civil service�trap fishing makes it possible to earn a reasonable living. It also provides recreation for children and youth and promotes the culture of the people.
Of the fish consumed in the communities adjacent to the wetland ecosystem under study, over 75% is supplied through trap fishing. Without it, consumers would have to rely almost entirely on smoke-dried fish from Lake Chad, which by the time it reaches southern Nigeria is stale and expensive.
The practice scores high in terms of sustainability, cost-effectiveness and manageability. It is sustainable because the raffia palm regenerates naturally in a rather prolific manner in the Ose wetland ecosystem. Therefore, all the raw materials needed to make the traps are always available in large quantities. It is cost-effective because community members share common property rights to the wetland forest from which the necessary materials can be extracted. The practice is easy to manage locally because the community manages the entire ecosystem itself and has rules and regulations designed to govern the use of the ecosystem in a sustainable manner. The local people benefit from the practice because it provides them with employment as well as with fresh fish at affordable prices all year round. The practice thus helps to improve their nutrition and health standards.
The strengths of the practice lie, among other things, in its sustainability. It has provided employment, income and fish for many generations. It should continue to provide these for future generations, thereby contributing significantly to sustainable development and the promotion of local culture.
The practice�s weakness is that as development progresses and more and more people are educated, fewer people will want to engage in trap fishing because of its tedious nature. In addition, some of the traditional male elders who possess the knowledge of trap-making are growing old and dying. With their children taking to education and urban life, it becomes less likely that the knowledge of trap-making and trap fishing will be retained and transferred.
The practice can be improved upon and developed in two ways. First, it needs to be documented in writing. Second, the traps could be made more durable by replacing the raffia strands and fibres with steel wires. The manufacturing could also be mechanized instead of done manually, as at present.
The integration of this practice with the modern fisheries practice of introducing fingerlings has also been recommended. If fishermen find that yields at a particular site begin to decline, they could introduce fingerlings, move to another spot, and when they return to the first site after some time the fish population would have been replenished.
Source of inspiration
The practice does also occur in South America and Asia, for example, and could certainly be replicated in other parts of the world, provided the materials (raffia palms, earthworms, etc.) are available and there are appropriate wetland ecosystems where fishing can be done.
As far as the author knows, the practice is common throughout the Ose wetlands, which implies that it has been widely replicated. It has also been observed in mangrove swamps and along creeks of the delta areas of Nigeria. It is believed to have been brought there by people from the Ose wetlands who went to the city of Port Harcourt in search of urban employment. The author does not know of any replication outside southeastern Nigeria, however.
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