Drop in fish stocks for illegal fishing

The threat of extinction looms large over the state's natural fish stocks in rivers and lakes because of unregulated inland fishing during the breeding season.

By LALMOHAN PATNAIK in Cuttack
  • Published 28.08.16
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A fisherman throws net in the Kathajodi river. Telegraph picture

Cuttack, Aug. 27: The threat of extinction looms large over the state's natural fish stocks in rivers and lakes because of unregulated inland fishing during the breeding season.

The impact of unrestricted fishing is already being felt in the state's rivers, especially in the Mahanadi. There has reportedly been a drastic downslide in fish catch.

The annual freshwater fish production in the state is around three lakh tonnes. While 87 per cent fishes are from ponds and tanks under captive culture, the remaining are from lakes, reservoirs, rivers and canals.

However, only 5 per cent of the output are from the rivers and canals, indicating the steep fall in fish population in rivers.

The rivers are the breeding grounds for freshwater fishes. That the fishing during breeding season is leading to the dwindling fish population is evident between June and July, when markets flood with gravid fishes.

The situation, conservationists feel, warrants a two-month fishing ban in the rivers and natural lakes during the breeding season to ensure spawning of fishes. The ban is expected to ensure replenishing of natural fish stocks.

Senior officials in the fisheries directorate, however, said they were aware of the dwindling fish stocks in the rivers and lakes and issue of ban on inland fishing was being considered. "The state has a breeding season ban only for marine catch and reservoirs. The Inland Fishing Act is already in a preparatory stage. The act, with provisions for conservation, will pave way for tackling unfettered fishing during the breeding season in the rivers or lakes," joint director of the inland fisheries Debananda Bhanja told The Telegraph.

A survey conducted by the Wildlife Society of Odisha revealed that fish catch in the Mahanadi's major distributaries - Luna, Chitrotpala, Birupa, Kathajodi, Devi, Kandal and Paika - had declined by as much as 80 per cent during the past two decades, leading to a fall in fishermen incomes. River fishermen of Aitalanga, Daleighai, Sankarishai, Patharpaka, Marshaghai, Jalaghari villages have shifted to alternative livelihoods such as manual labour due to the decline.

Besides, large-size adult breeder fishes have become increasingly rare and the average size of common river carp species such as rohu, catla, mrigal and also catfish have declined to 1kg to 2kg. Large specimens of 5kg to 8kg that used to be caught earlier have also become rare.

"We have been demanding for the past 16 years a ban on fishing in the rivers and lakes for two months (June 15 to August 15) to protect the adult breeding fishes and ensure spawning of fishes that would, in turn, result in good fish catch for fishermen. But, the government is yet to take any tangible measures to address the problem, which is directly impacting the traditional livelihoods of the state's river fishermen," said society secretary Biswajit Mohanty.

"Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala have already banned fishing in rivers and lakes during breeding season," he said.

The society-conducted survey further indicated that fish migration in the Mahanadi, Brahmani and the Baitarani rivers were affected during the monsoon floods, when fishes tend to move upstream for spawning. Such egg-bearing or gravid fishes are caught in large number at the barrages, dams, annicuts and canal gates.

Fishermen put up nets at the gates of barrages at Naraj, Mundali and Jobra on the Kathajodi and Mahanadi rivers to catch migrating fishes. The nets are put up as traps throughout the year and fishermen regularly haul up the nets using ropes and catch fishes of all sizes, including the juveniles.

"Fishing should be banned up to 100 metres downstream and upstream of all gates at barrages, dams, annicuts and canal to save the migrating fishes," Mohanty said.

Migratory marine fishes travel long distances inland through rivers such as the Mahanadi, Brahmani, Baitarani and the Subarnarekha for spawning.

But, unregulated fishing near the river mouths is driving them to extinction.

"Hilsa migration had failed in these rivers for over a decade now," said Mohanty. "Hilsa are prevented from crossing the river mouths by gill nets which act as walls of death. They cannot spawn in the fresh water areas any more. The much sought-after fishes these days are caught from the sea only and are available at exorbitant rates. It is the same with marine fishes such as sea perch (bhetki) and mullets (khanga)," he said, urging for a ban on fishing near the river mouths.

A senior official in the fisheries directorate said the ground was being prepared to implement the central government's umbrella scheme, Blue Revolution: Integrated Development and Management of Fisheries.

"Conservation related to inland fisheries figured prominent among the issues taken up at the three workshops held as part of implementation of the Blue Revolution in the central, southern and northern divisions of revenue divisional commissioners by the fisheries directorate in Cuttack, Berhampur and Sambalpur on August 17, 19 and 22, respectively," the official said.