Fish in troubled waters

“There he stood, the mahseer of the Poonch, beside whom the tarpon is a herring and he who catches him can say he is a fisherman.”
— Rudyard Kipling.

Anyone familiar with mahseer fishing would know the adrenaline rush and excitement that ensues as soon as the fish takes the bait. ‘Impetuous’, ‘rash’, ‘impulsive’, ‘reckless’ is how anglers describe this robust fish so full of strength and energy.

Mahseer, also known as the Himalayan Mahasher or Golden Mahasher are commercially important game fish as well as highly esteemed food fish. The first species from this group were scientifically described as early as 1822 and ten years later they were called an angling challenge by the Oriental Sporting Magazine. Soon after, they became a favourite of British anglers and recreational fishermen living in India.

The word ‘mahseer’ is derived from two Persian words ‘mahi’ meaning fish and ‘seer’ (pronounced sher) meaning tiger. Thus the mahseer (pronounced Mahasher) is known as the tiger among fish – a most befitting title for this striking fish. Records exist of specimens up to 9 feet in length and over 50kg in weight though fish of this size are rarely seen nowadays. The average catch is 5 to 8 kg with a maximum specimen weight of 30kg.

The mahseer inhabits rivers and rivulets of the sub-mountainous terrain in the course of the Himalayas and can be found at an altitude of 2,500 ft. Historically, this remarkable fish was found in most rivers of the Indian subcontinent. In Pakistan, until the seventies, the mahseer was abundant in the rivers of Azad Kashmir, Balochistan, Swat and NWFP. Recent studies, however, indicate that this fish has almost been extirpated from most parts of the country and the only sizeable and stable population that remains is in the river Poonch, Azad Kashmir.

In India too, the mahseer population has declined dramatically and it is now categorised as an endangered species by the National Bureau of Fish Genetic Resources (NBFGR), though enough specimens remain in the Himalayan and central Indian rivers to keep angling tourism alive.

In view of its declining numbers, the Himalayan Wildlife Foundation in collaboration with the Fisheries Development Board, WWF (Pakistan) and the Ministry of Environment’s Pakistan Wetlands Programme (PWP) have approached the AJK Wildlife and Fisheries department to initiate immediate measures to conserve the mahseer. As a first step the PWP carried out a detailed survey of the distribution, status and bio-ecology of the mahseer fish in the Poonch River of Azad Kashmir. Dr Muhammad Rafique, Director, Pakistan Museum of Natural History was commissioned to supervise and complete this task.

According to his report, the mahseer population decline in Pakistan can be attributed primarily to unsustainable fishing practices. Fish are often caught by unscientific methods of capture including the use of dynamite, hand grenades and electric current to stun and then capture the fish. In addition, poisoning of streams and rivulets is often done to quickly kill entire shoals.

Building temporary stone dams across streams as well as using fish mesh net for capturing juveniles are other examples of exploitative fishing methods. Mahseer shows high spawning migration to upstream areas where they usually breed just before the summer monsoon rains. When juvenile fish or those that have not yet completed their breeding cycle are captured, decline in the fish population is inevitable.

Habitat destruction and damage of the spawning grounds is the second major cause of habitat decline. In the life cycle of the mahseer, once the adult fish has successfully negotiated the river from the Mangla dam to reach the spawning grounds, it looks for a suitable habitat of warm waters in shallow streams with gravel and sand in the right natural proportions to be able to lay its eggs. The removal of sand and gravel from the river bed for construction activities averts this natural process. In addition, the construction of dams on major rivers has fragmented the mahseer’s habitat. The second major cause of the decline is the damage to the spawning grounds and nursery of the mahseer in the upper small tributaries of the Poonch River.

The consortium of conservation agencies, led by the HWF have suggested a number of measures, including prohibition of harvesting during the fish breeding season, legally specifying the mesh size for fishing nets, checking and controlling the quantity and type of fish extracted from the reservoir, ensuring that illegal means of fishing are not employed and last but not least preventing degradation of the mahseer’s habitat.

As part of these conservation measures the Wildlife and Fisheries Department, Government of Azad Kashmir, has been requested to declare the entire length of the river Poonch and the Mangla pocket where the river drains in to the Mangla reservoir as a protected area / national park.

This will preserve not only the mahseer but all other animal and plant species that abound in the river Poonch and its adjoining areas. This will be the first species-specific conservation initiative for fish in the country, and can be counted as a conservation effort of international concepts and standards.

“Without the support and full involvement of the local communities this effort cannot be successful,” says Dr Anis-ur-Rahman, CEO of the Himalayan Wildlife Foundation during an interview with Dawn.

“The objective of the project is to revert mahseer from near extinction to a healthy population, and secondly to promote the culture of sports angling for the benefit of sportsmen and resident communities. If sustainable fishing practices are employed, the yields will be higher which will be beneficial for the fish stocks as well as for the fishermen community who depend on these fish for their livelihood.”

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