A Mysterious River Monster Could Help Save Papua New Guinea’s Rainforests

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Scientists say sport fishing for the Niugini black bass could benefit the people of the South Pacific nation—but only if biologists learn more about the species first

Source: A Mysterious River Monster Could Help Save Papua New Guinea’s Rainforests

A monster fish could soon provide new livelihoods for the impoverished communities of Papua New Guinea, as well as a way to protect the South Pacific island’s rainforestsfrom the devastating effects of logging, mining, and industrial agriculture.

The fish in question is a massive river dweller called the Niugini black bass. These 45- to 65-pound behemoths are beloved by a small but dedicated group of anglers who each shell out thousands of dollars to visit Papua New Guinea. They seek out the Niugini black bass because the fish is notoriously challenging to catch and land owing to its strength and the complexity of its river habitats.

Creating a larger sustainable catch-and-release fishery for the black bass could boost the local economy and help save the country’s rainforest, according to a team of conservationists.

There’s just one problem standing in the way of making this happen: The fish is almost a complete scientific mystery.

“We don’t even know where they breed, whether they exchange between rivers or stay in one river, how old they are, how long they live, or what resources they need,” said Marcus Sheaves, head of marine biology at Australia’s James Cook University. “In fact, we know nothing.”

Sheaves is the principal investigator at Niugini Black Bass Research, a collaborative effort to study the river monster and how it could benefit local economies. He’s also the lead author of a new paper, published in the journal Fisheries Management and Ecology, that describes the potential for a sports fishery if biologists can just answer some of the questions about these fish, which have until now never truly been scientifically studied.

Sheaves said Papua New Guinea and other Pacific island nations face a series of threats that need practical solutions. “In the Pacific we really have struggles with small islands and increasing populations,” he said.

The population of PNG has increased by 40 percent in recent years, and 38 percent of the population was under the age of 15 at the time of the last census in 2011. Most people live in remote villages and earn less than $6 a day.

In addition to mining, logging, and palm oil plantations, which are destroying huge swaths of PNG’s rainforests and its unique species, other threats loom. “There are going to be food-security problems linked with climate change,” Sheaves said. “The people on the coasts are likely to get squeezed.”

The research team hopes it can learn enough about the Niugini black bass and, in the coming years, set up a fishery before things get worse. It is also working with local villages to help them understand the value of the fish. “If you can get the people to understand the value of their resource, it protects the fish plus the environment that it’s in,” Sheaves said.

Knowledge about the fish, then, is vital to making this happen. One of the team’s ongoing research projects involved tagging 49 fish and tracking their movements. So far it has collected more than 1 million data points, which will help it to determine where the fish go and what parts of what rivers are essential to their survival.

The tagging project also illustrates that a catch-and-release fishery—if done correctly—would probably not harm the bass. “All of the fish we caught and tagged are still swimming around,” Sheaves said. “They’re tough. They can handle it.” All the same, another research goal of the project involves coming up with best practices to ensure that sport fishers handle the bass properly and release them safely.

Sheaves called this “a long-term plan” and said he doesn’t expect to see any growth in the commercial fishery for at least five years. Beyond that, though, he sees a lot of potential for tourism to benefit both the people and the environment of PNG, much in the way that some bird-watchers flock to the country to see its unique avian species, such as the famed bird of paradise.

“The country has spectacular scenery, spectacular cultures, and lots of beautiful virgin rainforest,” he said. “The rivers and estuaries where the black bass lives are places that can be owned by one village, so they can actually control the sport fishery. Just getting one or two tours in there a year would support their whole village.”

The ownership and economic benefits, he said, could save the fish and the surrounding forest for generations to come. “If they just leave it alone, it will be there forever for them,” he said. “It’s a simple equation.”