India's freshwater fish are under pressure. Multiple factors like pollution, low water flow levels in rivers that can restrict the ability of fish to migrate to spawning grounds, and unregulated fishing during the breeding season have been posing a threat.
The India government is looking to arrest the drastic downslide in fish catch.
"Rivers are crucial breeding grounds for freshwater fish. Several factors have contributed to the decline in fish population and a major criteria is unregulated inland fishing during the breeding season," said Shailendra Dwivedi, Joint Secretary, F&ARD (Fisheries and Animal Resources Development department), Government of Odisha.
A survey conducted by the Wildlife Society of Odisha (WSO) underscored the point. It revealed that the fish catch in the distributaries of the Mahanadi, which is a major river that runs through East Central India, has dwindled by as much as 80% over the past two decades. While the slump has impacted the income of river fishermen, many have been forced to shift to alternative livelihoods to shelve unemployment.
WSO secretary Biswajit Mohanty said for the last 16 years the organisation has been demanding a ban on fishing in the rivers and lakes of Odisha during monsoon to protect the adult breeding fish and ensure spawning. The neighbouring states of Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala in South India have already banned fishing in the rivers and lakes during the breeding season.
Asked about the ban, Shailendra Dwivedi said the state government is seized of the matter and is looking into the issue.
"In addition to imposing the ban, we have to ensure that we try and bring back the many species of river water fish that have become extinct. Many of the fishermen in the neighbouring states have been using unproductive and dangerous fishing methods like explosives, which have to be curtailed," he said.
Mr Dwivedi went on to add that the Odisha government is also looking to expand aquaculture, which involves cultivating freshwater and saltwater populations under controlled conditions.
While fishermen have been complaining of a low catch, many point out that the average size of the common river carp species such as rohu, catla, mrigal and catfish has slumped to just 1-2 kilogram (kg). Earlier, they say they could net large specimens of 5-8 kg, a feat which is almost unheard of these days.
Shailendra Dwivedi added that the Odisha government is setting in place conservation programmes to counter the Hilsa decline.
"A year ago, Hilsa was available at USD 18 (Rs 1,200) per kg. It is now available at USD 27 (Rs 1,800) per kg. The low catch is unremunerative for farmers. Even in neighbouring Bangladesh, the delicious fish is on the decline," said Mr Dwivedi, who had been to Dhaka last year.
The threat to natural fish stocks in Odisha assumes significance as the state is largely dependent on the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh. The southern state supplies over 45,000 tonnes of freshwater fish every year to meet Odisha's high domestic demand.
Satish Ranjan Das, Nodal Officer from Odisha's Directorate of Fisheries said there was 11 per cent more production this year as compared to last year.
"Freshwater fish production was 337,000 metric tonnes in Odisha, as compared to 300,964 metric tonnes last year. We imported 48,000 metric tonnes from Andhra Pradesh to feed local demand. Overall, we had 469,000 metric tonnes in 2014-2015, and 521,000 metric tonnes in 2015-2016. Hence, 11 per cent increase," he said.
Last year, the Odisha government added 2,600 hectares of new area. "In the brackishwater sector, we added 400 hectares of new water areas, and another 2,200 hectares in the fresh water sector with more ponds and tanks," Das added.
He pointed out that the state government was stocking “good quality fish seeds in the reservoirs and actively supporting many fisheries.”