are in the MOST Phase I website (1994-2003).
The MOST Phase II website is available at: www.unesco.org/shs/most.
|Best Practices on Indigenous Knowledge||MOST/NUFFIC (IK-Unit)|
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 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
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.
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
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
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
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
If you think that this case could be useful in a different context than the one described here, please get in touch first with the contact person listed below (Administrative data). Intellectual property rights could be an issue.
Additional remarks and information
This phenomenon needs to be investigated through research:
· To analyse what the secretions are and what they are made of.
· To learn why and how worms attract a variety of fish species, including species that have very rudimentary mouthparts and no visible eyes.
Ndi Ngbo Community of Oba
Idemili South Local Government Area
Anambra State, Nigeria
Mr Amonye Nwonwu
c/o St Stephen’s Church
P.O. Box 8 Oba
Idemili South Local Government Area
Anambra State, Nigeria
who have described this Best Practice
Prof. F.O.C. Nwonwu
Department of Agricultural Economics
University of the Free State
P.O. Box 339, Bloemfontein 9300
Tel.: +27 51 4013212
To MOST Clearing House Best Practices on Poverty and Social Exclusion
To MOST/CIRAN Database of Best Practices on Indigenous Knowledge
To MOST Clearing House Homepage