Sunday, November 18, 2007

Fish kingdom

A multiple variety of fish is one of the major attractions for which Sikkim is popular among ichthyologists, says PK Ghosh

The Lepchas have named Sikkim as Nye-mae-el. The land provides the tourists a panorama of pleasant surprise. The state, bounded by Bhutan and West Bengal on the east, Nepal on the west, West Bengal on the south and Tibet on the north, is having a population of 5,50,000.
Sikkim is blessed with beautiful and luxuriant natural resources both fauna and flora from water and jungle. And among all these fishes have been well documented since 150 years by the authors / taxonomists namely McClelland (1845) who had described three local species of fishes. Similarly other ichthyologists like Gunther (1868), Day (1878), Hora (1923), Raj Tilak (1972) and Puspa Tamang (1992) of recent time has described and reported 48 species of fish from this Himalayan region.
There are variety of fishes found in the Himalayan belt that have encouraged many ichthyologists over the years for extending their studies on fishes. For instance, Hooker (1884) reported about Cyprinoids – big fishes those were abundantly found in crystal clear water of the river Rangeet.
The state has maximum species of fish belonging to the Cyprinidae family. Among these Asala sometimes called “Snow trout” are the common game fishes with which the fishermen are very much acquainted. “Trout” and Asala by external appearances are very close to each other except one is furious and the other is little hesitant. There are two species “Donthey Asala” (Schizothorax richardsonii) which is more ubiquitous and are found at an altitude of 2000 metres. The only game fish seen in Bakcha Chhu, 24km away from Gangtok. It has small and round mouth and weights to one kilogram. On the contrary, “Chuchey Asala” (Schizothoraichthys progatus) has pointing mouth. These fishes are found in very lower altitude and they grow much bigger in size.
The great “Masheer” (Tor putitora), a predator has become a rarity due to increasing pollution. These fishes had record catches in the past especially caught by anglers when some were even more than 10kgs in weight. Another common fish is “Katley” (Acrossocheilus hexagonalepis) found in lower regions which grows to bigger size. Their body is covered with scales like that of “Carps” and “Masheer”. Their fins are having some similarities with those of “Masheer”.
“Brown trout” (Salmo trutta fario) transported from Kashmir (originally brought from United Kingdom) were stocked for about 65 years during the regime of the then Maharaja of Sikkim. At the beginning, these fishes were reared in the lake “Mon-mai-tso” situated deep inside a thick silver forest at an altitude of 3000 metres and 55km away from the capital. This fish is to be introduced to other areas namely Lachung in north, Yuksam and Uttaray in west Sikkim. These are transported at regular intervals during the season to suitable lakes and streams for their breeding. This fish does not grow to bigger size (although 1400g was recorded but very rare). They thrive well in highly oxygenated clear snow-fed streams and lakes. Majority of such fishes are never hooked on a rod and a line. Professional fishermen generally catch them in nets. Bulk of fishes belongs to genus Gara, locally known, as “budhuna” is basically a bottom dweller. Shoals of this fish are seen during monsoon flood heading into cleaner streams. Various species of Catfish belonging to the family of Sisoridae are caught in nets. Although they are caught by hooks fitted with lures like earthworms. By hooks one can fish giant Catfish, Bangarous of about 20kg and more.

Destruction of habitats:
Fishes need an ideal environment to survive. Water pollution is, perhaps, one of the most visible as well as widespread threats to them. Rivers get polluted in many ways like dumping of garbage, discharge of chemicals and agricultural pesticides, discharge of inadequately treated sewage, acidification of lakes and streams by acid rain and contamination of the ground water which feed springs. Such activities harm quality of water. Due to increasing trend in industrialisation (specially power projects), irrigation and all excessive tapping of spring water at source for domestic purpose have depleted many rivers and streams. Fishes are very sensitive to noise pollution. Rampant noisy quarrying activities along the riverbanks have already ruined their habitats and are searching for a safe breeding ground.

Excessive fishing and other detrimental anthropogenic activities have resulted in reduction or decline in size of fish population. The fishes are not allowed to grow much. Some fishes namely Tor putitora and Clupisoma montana locally known as “Jalkapur” are almost about to extinct. A declining trend in the catch of size and drastic fall in fish population has been observed in compared to preceding decades. Fishermen also do not follow the mandatory mesh size of 2.5cm of fishing nets and instead they use 1 cm resulting catch of fishes of any size.
By application on destructive methods for fishing the fishermen not only kill adult fishes which would have laid thousands of eggs but also destroy millions of young fishes, their habitats. They use poison, snares and loops, electric current from portable generator and even explosives for fishing purpose.

The state fisheries department is the appropriate authority to take care of all such nuisances. It seems to be a very difficult task for them alone to care of all these for achieving a desired level of conservation efforts for fishes. A concerted effort is a must for optimum result. Cooperation, practicability and active participation should be sought for one and all. Destructive sort of fishing must be banned. Those violating wildlife act should be penalised. Any person engaged in killing fishes by electric current, chemicals or by using explosives should face severe legal action. A continuous feedback on fish life and data updating are very important for future planning. ‘Catch and Release’ – a practice in fishing is an excellent way to help in maintaining fish stocks. Small fishes, as mentioned in fishing license, must be released back to water compulsorily. There should be a catch limit, which should not coincide with breeding season. The younger generation should understand the importance of conservation and protection of fishes. The Anglers Association of Sikkim has taken every initiative for popularising angling as a hobby. The association has earmarked 33 spots for fishing, seasons of availability of fishes in those areas and types of fish etc. having a distance of those spots as low as 24km and as high as 114km from the state capital. It has been encouraging to see that efforts are taken to conserve fishes and other related living beings in their food chain of the environment for which they organise seminars, awareness programmes, mass education, anglers meet, publication of leaflets, pamphlets and websites to improvise different species of fish.
(The author is principal scientist in Centre of Central Institute of Fisheries Education, Kolkata)