Saving the Golden Mahseer

Saving the Golden Mahseer

May 19, 2014-

As the winter cold recedes, and the rivers begin to swell from the melting snow, a profound change begins beneath the water. Fish, which have remained dormant through the winter, begin to swim and feed again, ready to embark on their annual migration. Yet, their journey is full of perils and it is a miracle that they even make it.

Nepal's 6,000 plus rivers and rivulets are critical spawning grounds for key migratory species like the Golden Mahseer and Goonch. Every spring, these species begin their journey, like the famous salmon, to spawn in the very same stream where they were born. The journey takes them as far north as the rivers in Taplejung and Bajhang. But to reach their destination, they have to survive many obstacles.

Nets and electric shocks

First, they must find their way through a maze of gill nets sweeping our large rivers like the Koshi, Narayani, Karnali and Mahakali. Our municipalities and VDCs grant commercial fishing rights to the highest bidder, with the sole objective of increasing their revenue and zero consideration for the environment. These fishermen sweep the rivers day and night to harvest as much as they can. The fish that do make it through are next exposed to electric shocks from our homegrown scientists, who have innovatively devised sophisticated battery-generated electro-fishing devices to stun fish. While the Aquatic Animal Conservation Act specifically bans such practices, these wannabe Nobel laureates walk the streets openly with their weapons of mass destruction. I once asked an official from the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, “Sir isn't this like walking down the street with a loaded gun?” I was met with a blank expression. I don't think anyone had ever asked him that question before.

A few fish miraculously survive and reach their spawning grounds only to find the gravel gone. Once again, the local bodies, in their drive to raise revenue from lucrative contracts with hefty commissions, have sold our sand and gravel to anyone who can fuel the burgeoning construction industry. This has resulted in large-scale extraction of sand and gravel, leaving no spawning grounds for the fish.

Despite these odds, the water gods must have some power, because every year, some fish hatch in our small streams. Once the monsoon clouds part and the water in our streams clear up, one can see, for a fleeting moment, millions of small fry, which are ready to start a new generation. But the greed of man has no bounds, and Nepal's scientists once again throng the streams with their electro-fishing gear and pesticides, which they've discovered works more effectively than the traditional herbal concoctions, which were used to stun fish temporarily. This is the sad cycle that our fish endure every year as the monsoon rains set in and part, and fewer and fewer fish reach adulthood to continue the cycle of life.

Land over water

The core problem here is an institutional lack of enforcement. Despite the existence of the Aquatic Animal Conservation Act, which bans these destructive practices, Nepal's conservation efforts have seen an overwhelming response only to terrestrial biodiversity, focusing on charismatic species like the rhino and tiger. As commendable as these efforts have been, the riverine ecosystem has been completely ignored. Despite several species now enlisted as endangered in the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species, there is neither a dedicated unit within the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation nor any explicit policy or programme that focuses on Nepal's aquatic ecosystems. What has emerged in recent years in the name of 'wetlands' has predominantly focused, once again, on terrestrial fauna that inhabit our lakes, ponds and marshlands. More than the mere acknowledgement of our rivers as a 'wetland', there is nothing in these documents to protect the fish that swim in our rivers.

A forty-kilometre stretch of the Babai River is the only spawning ground that lies within a protected area. All other rivers, such as the Narayani, Rapti, and the Karnali, simply form the boundary of our national parks and so, are essentially, outside the park's jurisdiction. More importantly, there isn't a stretch of river in the Mid Hills region, which are the key spawning grounds of these migratory species, that is protected. An understanding of the importance of our smaller tributaries as key spawning grounds and protecting them from the onslaught of humans, would go a long way, as would more stringent enforcement of the existing law, which clearly bans destructive methods of harvesting fish.

Fish of legend

This spring, we discovered a remote stretch of the Seti River in western Nepal teeming with large Mahseer. We landed and released three trophy fish weighing between 12 kg and 19 kg and saw larger fish. There is no doubt that such remote areas are the last refuges for these legendary fish. Sport fishing could go a long way in conserving these fish. Anglers not only pay top dollar to land the Mahseer, which has become legend among anglers, but will also create jobs for the poor. There is no doubt that protecting stretches of rivers like this is the answer. But the government must be willing.

The sad truth is that both locals and inconsiderate anglers continue to exploit this resource without any consideration for future generations. Some even boldly post videos of their massacres on Youtube. In desperation, I reached out to the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation and the Nepal Army, who are the guardians of our biodiversity. They told me there was no law to stop such practices. The scientific community has enlisted the Golden Mahseer as an endangered species, and this is the answer I received from the government. God save the Mahseer!



Rana is a member of the Save Himalayan Aquatic Resources, an NGO fighting to save Nepal's fish

Published: 20-05-2014 10:31

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