A Fish Story

Fishermen near Hadithah are pulling bigger fish out of the Euphrates than anybody can remember.   The fish got a chance to be so big because locals had been unable to fish during the late insurgency.  Coalition forces had limited or banned river traffic to prevent terrorists from using the river as transportation and a way to get away.  With the more stable situation, the ban was been lifted, but fishing did not return to its previous levels, despite the size of the fish population.  Why not?

We thought of the obvious reasons, maybe the boats were not in good repair or that people were still afraid to take to the water, but this didn’t seem to be true.  People were fishing, but not so much.  They were fishing for their own or for very local consumption, but not for market.   Then we identified to missing link.  It was not the boats, river, fish, fish markets or fishermen.  The missing link was ice.

Fish are very perishable.  You can catch that big fish, but it is probably not a good idea to buy it or eat it after it has been sitting around in 110 degree heat in the sun all day.  W/o ice, fish mongering is limited to places very near the river where live fish can be maintained.

There was an ice factory nearby, but it was not in operation.  CF helped get it up and running and now fishing is returning.  All this makes our plans to help with fish hatcheries in Anah and Hadithah more urgent, but the hatcheries would have been ineffective and maybe even harmful if the ice problem had not been solved.

The lesson for me was a reminder of bottlenecks and how well the free market works if it is allowed to do so.    We (in this case essentially bureaucratic planners) didn’t think through the whole system.  No planners really can.  That is why the market works so well.  Individuals or groups identify a need and they fill it – IF they can.  The authorities’ role is not to do, but to enable. I think we did the right thing in enabling rather than providing.  Independently, CF are contracting with local firms for ice, rather than making it ourselves, which we are more than capable of doing.   This is helping build an ice infrastructure, which will be in place after we leave.  Ice is a big deal in this hot climate. 

I am glad that we caught on in time.   You accomplish big goals by a combination of applying pushing energy and removing obstacles.  It is tempting just to push harder because you have more ostensible control, but often the obstacle removal is the way to go.  Buying boats & nets, training fishermen etc would have looked good on our reports, but removing the obstacle and letting them do it themselves was the true key to success.

As the old Taoist wisdom advises, the best way to accomplish a task is when the people say, “we did it all by ourselves.”

FYI – In case anybody notices, I am still in the U.S. and this post is out of sequence.  I wrote it a couple weeks ago.  I just forgot to post.  The pictures are old ones too. The top one is fishermen on Lake Qadissya and the one above is Lake Thar-Thar.