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The perils of the water tiger

India’s Mahseer stocks are being decimated by indiscriminate fishing
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First Published: Mon, Jun 03 2013. 11 20 PM IST
The mahseer is one of India’s six species of sport fish adversely affected by habitat loss, human intervention in the form of infrastructure development, poaching and illegal fishing. Photo: Misty Dhillon
The mahseer is one of India’s six species of sport fish adversely affected by habitat loss, human intervention in the form of infrastructure development, poaching and illegal fishing. Photo: Misty Dhillon
Updated: Mon, Jun 03 2013. 11 22 PM IST
The golden mahseer fights like hell,” says Indrave Singh Mann, 67, an angling enthusiast since he was five years old. This resident of Delhi also happens to hold the record for the biggest trout ever caught in an angling competition, held in Himachal Pradesh in 1995. But for sport, he has always preferred the golden mahseer.
“It is a real game fish, a tough fighter. Even an average 20-pound (9kg) fish will give you a run for your money. No wonder the British had classified it as the original game fish in the world,” says Mann.
The current status of the mahseer is distressing. “The species is being decimated due to indiscriminate fishing by netting, dynamiting and poaching, poisoning and diverting water flows for irrigation which is impacting its spawning,” says Ravi Singh, secretary general and CEO, WWF-India.
Angling as a sport is considered a conservation measure to protect the fish and its habitat as enthusiasts release the fish after it’s caught. Angling, in a way, protects large stretches of the mahseer habitat from poaching and other illegal activities. The areas that are rich in fish are divided into “beats” among the local community that protect each stretch, thus allowing them to earn money from the sport.
The mahseer is known for its large, shining scales and can attain considerable size and weight. It is much-respected for its power and beauty, with the largest fin-to-body ratio among freshwater fish. The scales produce a rainbow of colours with a mesmerizing shine unlike any other freshwater fish. Among the two largest mahseer caught by rod and line are a 119 pound (54kg) fish by Colonel J.S. Rivett-Carnac on 29 December 1919, and a 120 pound specimen caught by J.W. Van Ingen on 22 March 1946.
The species is found in clear streams where the temperature remains between 5 degrees Celsius and 25 degrees Celsius. The mahseer inhabits the Indus, Ganga and Brahmaputra river basins in the Himalayan foothills as well as the Cauvery in the south.
Despite this, the mahseer is one of India’s six species of sport fish adversely affected by habitat loss, human intervention in the form of infrastructure development, poaching and illegal fishing.
In general, people are aware of three species of mahseer. North and northeast India is where the popular golden mahseer is found. The fish found in south India is mostly the humpbacked mahseer and the blue-finned mahseer. Of the 47 species of mahseer recorded in the world, India is home to more than 15 species.
In 1822, Francis Buchanan-Hamilton, a Scottish physician and naturalist, first described the mahseer to science. However, the fish came into prominence only in 1833 after an article in the Oriental Sporting Magazine. According to some naturalists, the name mahseer is derived from the Indo-Persian words, mahi (fish) and sher (tiger), or tiger among fish. The mahseer even finds a place in Vedic scriptures “as the privileged fish of the saints dwelling in the forests and Brahmins propitiating the souls of the deceased ancestors”.
The mahseer is entirely dependent on the environment in which it has evolved. Even a slight change can have a devastating effect. The water temperature is said to influence the rate of development and growth, longevity and size. And things haven’t gone well for it. As a WWF-India report on Mahseer Conservation In India put it, “The fish is at the receiving end of all kinds of human activity—building of dams, diversion of rivers and drying up or alteration in habitats due to natural calamities such as drought or flooding have a profound impact on the mahseer.”
Things weren’t as bad in the 1950s, when Mann’s family used to frequent Raiwala, a village at the confluence of the Song and Ganga rivers, between Haridwar and Rishikesh.
“The Ganga was full of fish and absolutely clean. The water was so clean and clear that one had to wait for the rain to make it slightly muddy, or else the fish would not take the bait,” says Mann. He recalls his father, Shivinder Pal Singh Mann, now 93, and his late uncle Rajdev Singh Akoi, both landing the fish after battling it out for hours.
One particular contest with a 65 pound (29kg) fish lasted more than three hours, he says. Mann has caught several “40 pounders” in his time, today sons Mehr and Shiv, in their early thirties, haven’t even landed a “10 pounder” with their modern rods and reels. “There is just no fish in the river. Raiwala has become a bustling town and the whole ecosystem has altered beyond recognition.”
Since the mahseer needs the pristine natural waters of hill streams to survive, it acts as an indicator of the health of the ecosystem. Experts say it can’t tolerate a modified water environment as is evident from the decrease in its numbers over the decades.
The Veerbhadra and Bheemgoda barrages, within a 14km stretch in the Ganga (between Rishikesh and Haridwar), have fragmented the golden mahseer’s habitat to its great disadvantage. The barrages act as barriers to fish migration, preventing access to breeding, rearing and feeding grounds. “Till today no effort has been made to minimize the adverse impact of dams and barrages on riverine fisheries,” says Shashank Ogale, a senior fishery scientist with the National Fisheries Development Board (NFDB).
“The golden mahseer population is reduced in large numbers every year when the Chilla canal and the east and west Ganga canals are closed for de-silting,” says Prakash Nautiyal, scientist, Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna (HNB) Garhwal University, Uttarakhand.
There are two popular angling techniques—spin and fly fishing. According to angling enthusiasts, to catch the mahseer with a rod requires great skill, technique, practice and lots of patience. The challenge is to play the fish until it tires itself out and gives up. When hooked the golden mahseer runs mid-stream to utilize the water current and starts swimming downstream.
The angler then bounces the rod, pulls it back and reels it in. The trick also lies in releasing enough of the fishing line so that the fish swims and tires itself. If the fishing line runs out, there is no option but to go where the fish goes, downstream. “Several hooks, rods, spoons and lures have been broken beyond recognition in this game,” says Mann.
Mann’s experience of fishing in the Cauvery has been different. The humpbacked and blue-finned mahseer are big fish, weighing more than 60 pounds but are not fighters like the golden mahseer.
The moment the humpbacked or blue-finned mahseer take the bait, they dive and settle in the middle of the river. Rods and reels that are much larger than those used in north India are needed to tease the fish out. Another challenge is the sharp granite rocks that cut the line unlike the rounded ones in Himalayan streams.
A.J.T. Johnsingh, keen angler and former dean, Wildlife Institute of India, believes that mahseer conservation can be significantly strengthened by promoting community based catch-and-release programmes that will benefit the local community, the fish and its habitat. “Presently, there is no legal framework to protect the species. This has made the fish more vulnerable,” says Johnsingh.
The community-based Ramganga Mahseer Conservation Project initiated in the buffer zone of the Corbett Tiger Reserve in 2004 through a tripartite agreement between the Environment and Anglers Association, the forest department and Uttaranchal Forest Development Corporation provided protection to the fish and economic benefits from angling to at least five villages. But the programme was discontinued due to complex government regulations which experts say could have been easily avoided.
“The effective protection given by the Environment and Anglers Association attracted a large number of anglers from around the globe to the Ramganga. Misty Dhillon promoted fly fishing for the first time on the golden Mahseer and made it one of the best fly fishing destinations in the world. The forest department earned revenue of over Rs.2,26,000 in 2011-12 and two eco-development committees (EDCs) earned Rs.23,300 during the same period,” says A.S. Negi, retired Indian Forest Service (IFS) officer from Uttarakhand.
In the south, along the 40-km stretch in the Cauvery river between the Shivasamudram and Hogenakkal falls, angling has benefited the mahseer and the local people. This is the only stretch of the river, many say, which still has mahseer weighing 50 kg and above.
“The programme was a successful model of ecotourism. The revenue generated from catch-and-release angling camps employed 40-50 local fishermen and erstwhile fish poachers as guards and guides. The angling activities which started in 1972 continued till 2010. Unfortunately, the programme was abandoned in 2010 with a court case,” says Johnsingh. “If angling is not resumed, Cauvery will soon be devoid of mahseer, we will loose the finest sport fish from this part of the country forever.”
Dhillon says: “Nobody is interested in the conservation of rivers. When you snorkel you will see the devastation, the river bed is full of massive white marks from dynamite. As the forest department has closed the fishing beats, poaching is rampant again in Ramganga.”
Today the mahseer thrives only in the part of the Ramganga that flows through the well-protected Corbett Tiger Reserve. Corbett was captivated by the fish, which he wrote about extensively, calling it the “the fish of my dreams” in Man-Eaters of Kumaon.
Looking at the alarming rate of decline, experts recommend that the golden mahseer should be declared as the national freshwater fish of India considering its wide distribution. Johnsingh further adds that since mahseer habitats are in areas under forest department control, forest officers at all levels should be educated, trained and motivated to save the mahseer.
A Project Mahseer, on the lines of tiger conservation, is urgently needed, according to conservationists and angling enthusiasts. Since it is regarded as the Tiger of the River, having a healthy population of mahseer, they reason, will go some way towards ensuring healthy and pristine rivers.
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First Published: Mon, Jun 03 2013. 11 20 PM IST