Kerala's freshwater fish are dwindling, and saving them is the need of the hour

Mahseer, snakehead murrel, catfish and more – In total, 72 species of freshwater fish in the state are in need of protection and conservation.
Fresh water fishing
Fresh water fishing
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There was a time in Kerala, a few decades ago, when water bodies were filled with different species of fish. People living on the banks of the Chandragiri River in Kasaragod, the Ashtamudi Lake in Kollam and even the Achankovil River in Alappuzha had fish at their doorstep. They would use bamboo baskets, sharp sticks, or even a piece of cloth and be able to catch something.

“When I was in my 20s, we could catch a basket full of varal (snakehead murrel) in 30 minutes of fishing with sharp sticks,” says 70-year-old Chellapan from Kuttanad. “Now, even if you spent the entire day fishing with a net in the river, you won’t even find one varal,” he laments.

Chellapan also talks about the yearly pond cleaning that used to happen in his neighbourhood. “Many households used to have ponds, they would use the water for agriculture. When those ponds used to be cleaned, we would find lots of fish in them. Mushi (catfish), kaari (another type of catfish), and a lot more. These ponds were connected to local streams from where these fish would come. Now, there are no ponds and no fish,” Chellapan says.

Varal, kaari, mushi and paral (puntius species), are just some of the many freshwater species of fish in the state that are dwindling to the point of vanishing.

While conservation is the need of the hour, for many in the state, fishing is a source of livelihood and provides food security. And experts reiterate that for conservation measures to work the stakeholders need to be consulted and involved.

Most local species are threatened

As per the Kerala State Biodiversity Board data, seven species of freshwater fish including pookodan paral (Puntius pookodensis), koyma (Mesonoemacheilus herrei), red Canarese barb (Hypselobarbus thomasi), Hypselobarbus pulchellus, valikkalenkoori (Hemibagrus punctatus), Barbodes wynaadensis and Barbodes bovanicus are categorised as critically endangered species.

The category the species falls under is based on its population size, subpopulations, generation length, reduction rate, area of occupancy and various other factors. For example, as per the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) list, the population of the Wayanad mahseer fish has declined by 80% in a decade. When it was listed in 2010, it was under the critically endangered species category.

Apart from this, another 42 varieties of fish come under the endangered category. This includes different types of barbs, garra, catfish, Puntius denisonii (called as Miss Kerala), varieties of mahseer fish including the hunchback mahseer. All of them are on the red list (an indicator of the health of the world’s biodiversity) of IUCN. Regarding the valikkalenkoori (Hemibagrus punctatus), the red list states that the population “has declined close to 100% in the known locations since the late 1990s. Since it was last recorded in 1998, the species could be extinct."

Another 16 varieties, including different loaches, pufferfish, stone suckers, and so on are categorised under the vulnerable category. Also, six species are listed under the near-threatened category. In total, 72 species of freshwater fish in the state are in need of protection and conservation.

Conservation through sustainable fishing

In August, the Mahseer Trust, the United Kingdom registered charity organisation to conserve mahseer fish (an endangered species) as a flagship species, published a cartoon to raise awareness in leading dailies in Kerala. The cartoon portrays how Ikkiri, a tribal person, catches a humpback mahseer but lets it go, despite being hungry. The Mullu Kuruma community believes that this fish is sacred and release it back into the water if they catch it. The cartoon was inspired by this practice and created to promote conservation and protect certain species of fish.

Many local experts and conservationists say that the ideal way to go about conserving freshwater fish species is through sustainable fishing practices.

“Currently, there are no stringent measures to curb freshwater fishing in Kerala, as it would adversely affect thousands of families for whom fish is a source of food and livelihood,” says Rajeev Raghavan, Assistant Professor at Department of Fisheries Resource Management, Kerala University of Fisheries and Ocean Studies.

Deliberating over some sustainable practices, Rajeev mentions that many countries follow a quota system when it comes to fishing – a particular number of fish can be caught at a particular time of the year or time period. However, even this could be challenging to enforce in Kerala, he says.

“It would be practically impossible for an authorised body to keep a check on freshwater fishing. There are plenty of fishers who use small country boats in lakes and rivers and once they bring in their haul they take it directly home, this cannot be tracked and audited,” he says.

Many experts suggest aquaculture or aquafarming as a solution for protecting endangered fish varieties. This is the controlled cultivation of a particular fish or aquatic plant. However, this is counterintuitive, Rajeev notes, as the vanishing species of big fish are carnivores and need to be fed on a large supply of smaller fish to grow and survive. “Fish like varal or catfish are carnivorous. So they need to be provided with large quantities of small fish. Where do you get these small fish from? Are we drastically reducing their population? In this way, aquaculture contradicts conservation,” he added.

Lessons from the sea

A recent study by Minderoo Foundation, a philanthropic organisation backed by Australian billionaire Andrew Forrest, has revealed reports of unsustainable fishing worldwide. The study has collected data from 142 countries on the status of 1,465 fish stocks. The study revealed that 49% of the assessed stocks were overfished and one in 10 stocks are on the brink of collapse.

The study gave grades from 'A' to 'F' to countries, based on their progress in restoring fish stock. India was graded 'D', which means that the country has shown only limited progress in restoring fish stock.

Further, in India, around 25 amphibians, nine varieties of fish in the family of shark and ray, seahorse and giant grouper, are protected under the Wildlife Protection Act (WLPA) 1972.

However, experts again point to the inefficiency of laws when it comes to protecting these species.

K Sunilkumar Mohamed, Retired Principal Scientist and Head of the molluscan fisheries division at the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, Kochi, says unlike people who fish in freshwater, fishing communities who depend on the sea for their livelihood are aware of the need for conservation and for the most part follow the laws. There is already a trawling ban for motorised boats in place in Kerala to prevent fishing during the breeding season. Also, many traditional fishermen try to rescue any protected species that get trapped in their net. Juvenile fishing is also avoided by many.

“Fishermen don’t fish these protected marine animals by choice, they use nets to catch fish, in which species like a dolphin or a whale shark may get trapped. It is after several hours that they pull back the net and segregate fish. By then, some of these protected species that have been caught have already died. It is not always possible to rescue and release them,” he says.

Stressing against a blanket ban as well, Sunilkumar points out that practising sustainable fishing at sea by making use of scientific data and knowledge is the way forward.

“For officials, it is easy to order a ban, rather than look into studies and find other options. We have scientific information here, so why don’t we make use of it. A blanket ban can only catalyse the underground market and enhance smuggling of such marine species,” he adds.

Banning the catch of sea cucumbers, an echinoderm, caused controversy as it was a major livelihood for some fishermen communities in southern Tamil Nadu prior to 2001.  There have been reports that in the last five years, Indian and Sri Lankan governments have seized around 64.73 tonnes of banned Sea Cucumber, which was being smuggled. This was just from the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Strait.

“Earlier, the CMFRI had advised us to allow its trade (sea cucumber) with certain regulations. These regulations should be based on scientific studies. Also, we can prescribe the size and number of the species that fishers are allowed to catch so that juvenile fishing will also be stopped,” Sunilkumar adds.

According to Fisheries Department data In Kerala about 8 lakh people earn their livelihood from fishing or allied works in marine fisheries in the 222 fishing villages situated along the coastline of the state. So, here the conservation should be on par with the economic activities and done via practical regulations.

“For example, we could prohibit fishing in areas where turtles lay eggs during the breeding period. We would need information on the place and time these threatened species lay eggs or give birth, so fishing activities can be regulated during that time,” Sunilkumar says.

The Minderoo Foundation study recommends that India undertake evidence-based management measures, strengthen fisheries monitoring programs and ratify and implement the 2009 FAO Port State Measures Agreement and adopt a National Plan of Action to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

However, the solution when it comes to protecting freshwater and marine fish that are threatened could lie in educating people, like Chellappan, on the present crisis, and communities voluntarily taking measures to preserve the fish species in their localities. “Freshwater fish conservation is possible only by raising awareness among local communities. This can be achieved through local systems. Enforcement via a government system is not practical,” adds Rajeev.

Moreover, the study points out that vital stakeholders, including the local fishing communities, were unable to participate in fisheries management. This is a major issue echoed by the experts in the country too. Involving fishing communities in law-making and framing measures to protect these species, would be a major step toward creating awareness and making conservation a reality.

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