Live fish, dead fish and sustainability

4th October 2010

Live fish dead fish and sustainability

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  • Natural resources ,
  • Ecosystems ,
  • Agriculture



Whether to eat or for sale, dead fish have value. But so too do living fish, often many times more so than the value of their carcasses. Dr Mark Everard and Gaurav Kataria reflect on lessons from the Himalayas, and what they may tell us about our wider quest for sustainability.

The golden mahseer is a majestic fish in more than just appearance, richly emerald- and gilt-scaled over an elegantly streamlined body that is improbably well camouflaged in the surging cascades of clear-green water over tumbled cobbles in its native Himalayan rivers.

It is also more frequent at sangams - the meetings of rivers which are sacred in the Hindu faith - nestling deep in ravines in towering mountainous landscapes which, like their hardy people, have changed little over millennia. Its sporting virtues are legendary, the ‘Indian salmon' that is reputedly the world's hardest-fighting fish.

Matsya, the first avatar, or incarnation, of Vishnu, the protector and preserver of the world and restorer of dharma (moral order), manifested as a fish to command the gathering of sages and representatives of the world's birds, animals, plants and seeds in a boat so that they survived a deluge that purified the world. The tale is similar in many details to Noah and his fabled Ark.

Mirroring this spiritual imagery, mahseer are the very soul of thriving, healthy rivers. They are river tigers (the Hindi word ‘maha' means ‘great' whilst ‘seer' means ‘tiger'), top predators migrating throughout river systems right up into montane headwaters. They represent as much a flagship of vital and connected ecosystems as their terrestrial mammalian namesakes.

Fish under threat

A tale less told about the mahseer fishes of India, notwithstanding their sacred status, is that they are both mercilessly harvested and their habitat is seriously perturbed by abstraction of water, gross pollution and above all impoundments.

Significantly, these include massive dams that prevent mahseer migrating into ephemeral monsoon-swollen rivers in which they spawn, and then the progressive downstream passage of juvenile and maturing fish eventually into the deeper lowland rivers essential to support their great size.

Dynamite, netting and snaring, spearing, poisoning with weedkiller and other easily accessible chemicals are all as widespread as they are illegal but unenforced.

A dying river

Surveying mahseer in the Saryu River in Uttarakhand, close to the Nepalese border, we found deep and rocky river gorges of breathtaking natural beauty. But a food-seller by a road bridge told us that he heard as many as a hundred dynamite blasts each day, which frankly seemed an improbable exaggeration. Yet a team of expert eyes surveying five kilometres of river revealed not one of these generally conspicuous fish.

Venturing up to Rameshwar on the sangam of the Eastern Ramganga River with the Saryu, a sacred spot and so presumably better protected by the taboo on killing within sight of the picturesque temple where the waters met, revealed not one fish either sighted in the crystal waters or drawn to my small fishing lure and light line.

The only action came from the shock of two improvised bombs, fabricated from plastic drinks bottles filled with dynamite supplied to deal with the frequent Himalayan landslides, thrown in by youths to kill fish. Both were lobbed into the river within 30 yards of where we stood.

But no fish were killed; there were no fish left to die. One hundred blasts audible each day suddenly seemed as plausible as it was clearly devastating. The illegality and manifest devastation of this form of fishing was not enforced in any way, and the youths doing it admitted they were not doing it for food but for ‘fun', venturing on motorbikes from tens of kilometres away from outlying towns.

A violation of beauty, natural wealth and spiritual significance, and all for mere thrills. What sense is there in this, and the brutalisation of an ecosystem that could provide for the needs of local people perpetually? Why could no individual or group of locals act, even from the clear motive of protecting their own interests?

The gifts of live fish

For those that love these majestic fish, it is painful, but so too because their very presence speaks of fresh water for all, flows of fertilising silt, quiet and spiritual places with associated wildlife and tourism potential, a moderated microclimate and many other gifts bestowed so freely and enduringly upon humanity by the river ecosystems that sustain both fish and people.

The return of mahseer to restored and protected rivers would signal restoration of the many other benefits enjoyed by the rural populations living on or near their banks, and would indeed represent a restoration of dharma, or moral order, echoing the ancient tales of Vishnu's incarnations.

The power of the market

Seeing the same devastation in other Indian rivers over the years, including destructive fishing as well as pollution and the frequent fracture of living systems by dams purportedly for the benefit of all, we had sought to do what we could. This included using the power of angling, wildlife and cultural tourism as a force for good.

On the Western Ramganga River, another Himalayan sub-catchment of the holy Ganges, local people have been brought into a share of the locally-significant spending power of tourists venturing from inside India and from as far afield as Australia, Europe and the US. Rather than bringing food, porters and tents from Delhi, local people have instead been employed, and basic provisions and luxury items have been ordered from local traders.

The sale of a single (pre-ordered) packet of branded cigarettes can represent the equivalent of five days of basic sales for a rural trader, and the copious beer enjoyed by anglers the world over represents genuine local wealth! Local people are now providing camping and cooking services, as well as supplying ponies and porters to serve needs directed by ethical tour operators. This ensures that the benefits of tourism are distributed across communities living in the places upon which it depends.

In 2007, mahseer were present in only five pools on the Ramganga River adjacent to two temples around Bikhyasen in the low, pre-monsoon flows of summer.

By 2010, after the embedding of tourism services into the local community, the number of pools known to hold brood stock mahseer had doubled precisely because local people saw value in constraining their destruction.

And, of course, the wildlife that is part of a healthy ecosystem has also prospered to the benefit of ecotourism and the many wider, often uncounted services provided to local communities by a thriving river system.

Small steps on a great journey

A sangam, or holy meeting of rivers, on India's border with Nepal

In the face of the widespread decimation of India's mahseer and the declining number of rivers that still hold them, this is small progress. However, it is significant for the region, and for the Jim Corbett National Nature Reserve immediately downstream with its complement of tigers, gharial and other endangered species. But it is also a model that we are seeking to promulgate on the Saryu, and to communicate more widely.

The message is simple, and is one being learned and replicated elsewhere in the world. From the tribal-owned ‘big five' Madikwe Private Game Reserve in South Africa set up to benefit local people as well as wildlife, gorilla-watching reserves in Rwanda and Uganda, through to emerging practice in Indian tiger and elephant reserves and WWF's Integrated Conservation and Development Projects (ICDPs) approach first introduced in the mid-1980s but now influential on practice around the planet, there is a concerted trend of biodiversity conservation projects becoming fully integrated with rural development. Everyone, or at least the majority, needs to win, together with the wildlife and wider ecosystems underpinning continuing well-being in the places where they live.

Wider lessons

This small instance of harnessing the power of tourism markets for the good of local ecosystems and people, and its reflections in wider wildlife tourism, conservation and integrated development programmes across the world, has lessons for us all beyond nature conservation programmes.

What if we valued our native rivers in quite the same way that we regard exotic locations and creatures? What if the plight of declining nightingales, bullheads, black poplars, water voles, house sparrows and hedgehogs was seen - and I mean deeply appreciated and valued in economic and other influential terms - not as a conservation tragedy but an erosion of the ecosystems underpinning our future security?

Is not the erosion of wildlife and habitat, both scarce and more common, in reality an infringement of human rights and economic opportunity, particularly for the young and the unborn that will suffer most severely from today's myopia?

What if we were to recognise that our future is, in real terms, intimately intertwined with the harvest mouse, southern hawker and yellow wagtail, and to ask searching questions about how we might internalise this in novel markets and economic driving forces to create real incentives towards a sustainable future, and equally to penalise its erosion?

Then, we would realise the evolutionary advantage inherent in our innate capacity to learn, setting ourselves on the path towards a more secure future for all: humans and living fish alike.


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