The importance of mahseers as a World-famous game fish is well known. The group comes in a spectrum of colours from deep burnt copper, through gold, silver, dark black, and inhabit different rivers through out the length and breadth of India, Pakistan, Burma, Bangladesh Srilanka, and even Thailand, (Thomas, 1897). Among the seven different recorded species (viz. Tor putitora, T. mussulah, T.khudree, T mosal, T. progeneius,
T. tor andAcrossocheilus hexangonolepis). Tor putitora or golden mahseer is one of the most-sought after species providing the main fishery in the uplands all along the Himalayan belt extending from Kashmir in the north-west to Sadiya in the north-east. The fish is also known as Greyhound or the thick-lipped mahseer and has been observed to attain the weight of 70-80 kg. (Misra, 1962). Anglers regard golden mahseer as one of the finest sport-fish and it is a source of recreation to innumerable sportsmen both Indian & Foreigner Thomas, 1897 in his famous book " The Rod in India" stated that pound for pound mahseer is far superior to ’lordly salmon’ in sporting qualities. To the local fishermen too, mahseers have been of considerable importance because of their large size, hardy texture, high commercial value and longer shelf life.
Threat and the recent status of mahseer catches:
In recent years due to their proximity to human intervention, mahseer stock is threatened with multifaceted dangers posed by construction of series of dams, barrages/ weirs across the rivers on one hand and over-exploitation on the other. While uncontrolled fishing and destructive fishing devices have adversely affected the riverine population, the construction of dams are acting as physical barrier to this migratory species, tending to prevent their access to their usual breeding and feeding grounds. Dams interrupt the river continuum and block the longitudinal connectivity of rivers. They also generate a complex web of impacts which affect the physical and biological components of the riverine environment. The denial of migration also results in permanent and irrevocable eradication of fish stock ranging from depletion to complete extermination. The ever-diminishing catches of mahseer from the river Satluj, Giri, Beas, Chenab and their tributaries clearly bespeaks the affects caused by the construction of Pandoh, Chamera, Pong, Bhakra & Giribata barrages. Regardless of their height, weirs and dams constitute barriers to breeding migration of mahseer. Further, mahseer population is also affected by morphological modifications resulting from completion of river valley projects. These include change in slope, river-bed profile, submersion of gravel zones or riffle section as well as destruction of riparian vegetation and changes in tropic regimes. Most of the negative factors affect upper parts of the streams where lacustrine conditions are superimposed on the river. Downstream, the hydrological conditions get severely altered through reduction of water discharge. The adverse conditions of the flow can extend over many kilometers downstream of the obstruction so that fish passages become difficult.
Indiscriminate hooking, netting, dynamiting and electrocuting have also greatly affected the mahseer availability in the State’s rivers and streams. In the pursuit of more and more catches, even the declared State’s sanctuaries have not been spared by the poachers. Further, due to reduced availability of large mahseer in the streams, fishing pressure on juveniles is on the increase with the result that streams earlier assuring a bountiful harvest have started giving a dismal picture. The various anglers’ Associations have painted a similar picture of other States of the country. Once teeming with thousands of mahseer, streams like Giri, Ashwani, Binwa Neugal, Beas, etc. the returns are sharply declining, raising the number of disgruntled anglers each year.
The sharp decline in mahseer catches has also been noticed in State’s reservoirs. Gobind Sagar reservoir- known earlier as store-house of mahseer has recently become a Silver carp reservoir. As per available data (An.1) mahseer used to constitute as high as 9% of the total catch during 1984-95 which has plummeted to a level of 1% during 1999-2000 maintained. Pong reservoir however has steady catch of mahseer during the last two decades ranging from 30-50 tonnes. The mahseer catches during 2016-17 were 28.343 tonnes accounting 7.42% of the total catches. Further, the average size of mahseer in Pong reservoir has ranged from 0.9 to 3.72 kg. during the last 10 years. Against this the average size of mahseer in Gobind Sagar has been from 1.2 to 1.9 kg. during the last 10 years in view of number of management efforts by the department.
Fisheries in general are the most neglected of all our national resources and mahseer resources are no exception to this. Conservation of aquatic resources are generally defined as management of water bodies towards specified aims with the intention of maintaining fish stock or rehabilitating their physical, chemical or biological qualities. This may be done passively or actively. In the former case it may involve only the protection of areas so as to maintain their status quo while in the later case efforts are a made to sustain catches by offsetting the fishing losses. Watch and ward of specified stretches,declaring certain areas as protective waters or sanctuaries, observance of ’closed season’, imposing restrictions on fishing in the rivers, specified areas near the weirs, reserving certain stretches for rod and line only and enforcement of bag-limits and catch limits also come under the purview of passive exercise are must for propagation, growth and rehabilitation of particular fishing.
The quantitative improvement of stock by transplantation of farm reared stocking material is termed as active conservation step. Setting up farms/ hatcheries near the streams/ reservoirs sites, followed by artificial breeding of mahseer in the farms and enrichment of stock in the water bodies usually go a long way in the rehabilitation and enhancement of particular fishery. Stocking, introduction and transfer of fish are considered valuable management tools which complement the physical rehabilitation of the environment. Trials have been undertaken successfully on artificial breeding of mahseer at Lonavala Fish Farm in Maharashtra and other national institutes. The breeding successes have raised new hopes on the prospects of revival of mahseer fishery. A need exists to intensify these efforts for undertaking large scale regular ’mahseer seed ranching programmes", and revival of fishery of yesteryears.
Strategy vis-a-vis Action plan of State Government for rehabilitation of mahseer stock in lentic & lotic waters.
The action plan of Himachal Pradesh Government for restoring of mahseer fish stock in the various rivers, streams, tributaries, lakes and reservoirs combines both passive and active measures and may be summarised as under:
Legislative action: As is well known that maximum damage to mahseer stock is done during the breeding season. The mahseer migrate in shoals upstreams in shallow running streams for spawning. This gives an ample opportunity to unscrupulous fishermen to kill the brood stock with nets, traps, sticks, sword, spears etc. as the gravid fishes are heavily loaded with eggs and vulnerable to all these destructive fishing methods.
Taking this into consideration, a special clause has been incorporated in the Himachal Pradesh Fisheries Act under whom Fishing during breeding season has been made cognizable non-bilabial offence inviting imprisonment upto three years.
Further based on scientific studies a clause has been incorporated in the H.P. Fishing rules under which minimum catchable size for mahseer has been increased from 300 to 500 mm or approximately 1.2kg. giving opportunity to each female mahseer to breed at least once before being caught. Since incorporation of this clause in the Fisheries Act during 1998 the average size of mahseer has increased in Pong dam and in Gobind Sagar reservoir.
Research efforts: An I.C.A.R. sponsored collaborative reaearch project between State Government & Punjab University on "Breeding and seed production of golden mahseer" has been initiated. Under this project, besides building up a mahseer brood stock, a modern mahseer hatchery has been set up at Deoli (Bilaspur) fish farm. Few breeding trials of mahseer have been undertaken with limited success.
- Setting up National Mahseer Fish Farm: Taking the importance of mahseer and the efforts made by Himachal Pradesh Government, the Government of India has approved a State Government’s proposal of setting up a ’National Mahseer Fish Farm’ in the State involving financial assistance of Rs. 2.00 Crores. The requisite modalities viz. drawings, dimensioning, water supply lines etc. are being worked out in consultation with experts. In all probabilities, the farm would able to meet the long standing demand of mahseer seed transplantation in open waters.
To conclude, being a prized fish of hills both from sport and commercial anglers, mahseer stock needs restoration and protection. Hitherto much vaunted ’conservation ethic’ is really an ethic of preservation. A meaningful strategy would be the judicious combination of transplantation & conservation. Only then this of our endangered game fish can be rescued from extinction and the various sanctuaries, rivers, streams, pools cascades etc. could be saved from turning into aquatic deserts.