Pandemic slows down conservation project aimed at protecting the endangered river fish
* Known for its striking golden hue, the fish is a source of excitement and recreation for anglers
* They depend on the daily catch not just for their meals but also for a quick income from local markets. This burst of fishing has put a question mark on the survival of the golden mahseer — especially at the hands of first-time fishers who cannot distinguish between juvenile and adult catch
* The mahseer also faces threats from the use of explosives and electrocution by poachers, as well as disruption of the migration route due to river valley projects
A corner of the picturesque village of Lamahatta, about 23 km from Darjeeling, sees a huddle of people almost every weekend.
Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic last year, this gathering has become a ritual for Lamahatta residents to discuss issues that concern their surroundings and physical well-being. One of the topics of discussion is the impact of the pandemic on a project aimed at conserving the Himalayan golden mahseer, often called the ‘tiger of the river’, and preserving the Rangeet River and its tributaries, including Rungdung.
Though the lockdown has led to cleaner rivers by lowering levels of pollution, there is a flip side to the story as well. In Lamahatta’s case, for example, the Rangeet has become a hub of fishing activity for villagers who returned home from the cities after losing jobs in the wake of the pandemic. They depend on the daily catch not just for their meals but also for a quick income from local markets.
This burst of fishing has put a question mark on the survival of the golden mahseer — especially at the hands of first-time fishers who cannot distinguish between juvenile and adult catch. This makes the conservation project more important than ever.
The project is an initiative of the neighbouring Glenburn Tea Estate, which spans eight villages in the region. It launched the project in the beginning of 2020, drawing in people from each of the eight villages in order to save the game and food fish that is in danger of extinction. But the loss of business due to the lack of tourists because of the pandemic has affected Glenburn’s budget for awareness campaigns on the mahseer.
Known for its striking golden hue, the fish is a source of excitement and recreation for anglers.
Currently listed as an ‘endangered’ species by the IUCN, the mahseer is often compared to the tiger for its strong will to fight back and wriggle off the hook. To those who supply fish to markets, the mahseer’s large size is of considerable importance. But the weight of the fish has reduced significantly over the decades. What used to be in the range of 25 kg earlier is now only about 5 kg. The reason behind this drop is the change in the water temperature.
A native of cold-water habitats, the mahseer’s tolerance for warm waters is low. In fact, the presence of the fish is an indicator of the health of a freshwater ecosystem. Its dwindling count has been a source of worry for people who depend on rivers Rungdung and Rangeet for their livelihood.
Rudolph John, one of the coordinators of the mahseer project, says, “Here the villagers head to the river for recreational activities. They often overfish. Even many outsiders come to this river for fishing and often through illegal methods, such as poisoning fish with plant extracts. All this has led to a steady decline in the population of the mahseer.”
He adds that the villagers are often unaware of how their activities can harm the ecology of the region. This is the gap that the Glenburn project seeks to fill, “so that they [the locals] become protectors of the fish and the riverine system”, John explains.
Among other things, the project aims at popularising the catch-and-release form of fishing. “The locals can catch the mahseer for pleasure but release it back into the river so as to arrest the decrease in population,” John says.
The mahseer also faces threats from the use of explosives and electrocution by poachers, as well as disruption of the migration route due to river valley projects. A case in the point is the Rangeet Hydroelectric Project, which is said to have hindered access to critical spawning areas. Local residents have made matters worse by introducing new species of fish in the river, which disturbs its food pool and ecological balance.
The long list of challenges for the mahseer makes the role of village in the project crucial. They instruct residents to keep vigils along the river in order to stop poachers and outsiders from fishing. Signposts put up at every village and the river banks carry statistics and information on the mahseer.
The project managers are also hopeful of promoting responsible angling tourism in the region through the initiative. This, John says, will generate employment. Part of the project also includes the release of nine lakh mahseer fingerlings in the rivers of the region. The fish thrives in fast-moving waters such as streams with rocky bottoms and riverine pools. This makes the Rangeet, a tributary of the Teesta that originates in West Sikkim, an ideal home for the mahseer.
Spawning, which usually takes place in small gravel pools on the Rungdung in the month of July, is a subject of study for the project group. John explains, “ We strengthen the number [of fish] through routine checks — studying spawning and cataloguing the various species of fish within a radius of 50 sq km.”
Lamahatta resident Budhay, who shows an interest in the theory behind the release of fingerlings, says that the step will help the mahseer breed in areas that the adult fish is unable to reach. “The fingerlings will grow on natural food and attain a marketable size,” he adds.
Budhay’s neighbour Manoj Thapa, who has been participating in the group activities, says that the hefty price the mahseer attracts in markets makes it a prized target among those who are eager to make a quick buck. “When we villagers try to stop outsiders from fishing, they even threaten us with knives. Till now, we had been backing off but this project has made us understand the importance of catch limits. We need to act fast… the mahseer is in danger.”
Source: Business Line