The South-west monsoon gives the cue to these enigmatic creatures; the first rains transmit an exhilarating rush of life into seasonal streams, alluring fish to travel great lengths. What they seek are suitable grounds to spawn. That's how their life begins - the monsoon sets the stage for generations of Mahseer to follow and their journey is nothing less than extraordinary, as they swim upstream against the raging monsoon currents, into shallower streams that form the arteries feeding rivers.
No one knows the pulse and rhythm of the great migrations better than tribal communities which live close to rivers and streams; they say it's the most bountiful time of the year and early hours of dusk set the fish in motion akin to the migration frenzy. Small groups of people prepare to walk deep into the forest and spend entire nights camping by streams to make the most of the monsoon bounty. Freshly washed-off top-soil muddies up the water with each rainfall, creating a safe passage-way during the first few weeks of the monsoon; many Mahseer make it through the journey without being caught.
People who have been to the Cauvery might be familiar with the name Mahseer. To begin with, there are a lot of species of Mahseer, the genus itself is diverse and belongs to the family Cyprinidae or "Carps" as they are most commonly known. Cauvery is home to 3-4 species of Mahseer or more (taxonomic studies underway), of which endangered and endemic Mahseer of the genus Tor, such as the Tor khudree (Deccan mahseer) and Tor malabaricus (Malabar mahseer) are known to be present.
In India, Mahseer are an important source of protein to a large population of people who live by rivers.They are the most valuable of catches in terms of their size, growing upto a length of 140 cms and weighing up to 50 kilos.The size and population of Mahseer is dwindling at a fast pace, with recent studies showing more evidence of destructive and illegal forms of fishing such as dynamiting and poisoning taking precedence over traditional fishing techniques. Their migratory nature also makes them most vulnerable to dams and mini-hydel projects, which inevitably block passageways and divert water vital to the survival of flora and fauna, downstream.
There however has been an age-old, vested interest in the conservation of Mahseer. Not many people are aware that recreational anglers along the Cauvery have been actively safeguarding the Mahseer and their habitat over decades. The fighting abilities of Mahseer have long attracted recreational anglers from all over the world,as they are reputed to be synonymous with the fighting qualities of the Salmon found in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Recreational anglers have the greatest respect for fish, and their deeply embedded concern for fish and riverine habitats has paved the way for conservation success stories along the Cauvery.
Mahseer conservation at Cauvery dates back to 1972, with the formation of the Wildlife Association of South India, committed to protecting a 20km stretch of the river leased in the past at Galibore. The recreational angling model worked in a sustainable manner; fishing license fees were utilised to patrol the river for poaching and other illegal activities, by recruiting local people as guards.This also resulted in a large number of poachers being converted to gillies or fishing guides,ensuring full-time employment and stability for those employed. The successful model was then replicated,with similar ventures run by the Jungle Lodges and Resorts Ltd, in the form of fishing camps at Doddamakali, Galibore and Bheemeshwari. The Coorg Wildlife Society, a volunteer-based organisation,is also responsible for monitoring and protecting a 28km stretch of the Cauvery (upper reaches), using proceeds from angling licenses and fees.
Recreational anglers practice responsible angling through ‘catch and release', where every fish caught is released after its length and weight has been measured - this is an important practice which has given us an insight into the status of Mahseer populations in the Cauvery, as a result of years of monitoring. Fish, unlike terrestrial animals, are the most difficult to study and monitor due to the nature of the medium in which they exist; anything aquatic only makes monitoring more challenging. Recreational anglers in that sense have been instrumental in providing baseline data for Mahseer by recording and documenting informationvaluable to science. The information can also be used to promote recreational angling as an effective monitoring and conservation tool.
Mahseers are well reputed as ‘Tigers of the water' with recreational anglers; this however pales in comparison with the amount of attention received by Tigers in the terrestrial realm. Unlike Tigers, which obtain utmost protection under the Indian Wildlife Protection Act (1972), Mahseer, like all other freshwater fish species, lack any form of protection. The term ‘out of sight, out of mind' is widely used by prominent fisheries scientists in India to emphasise their predicament and status. Mahseer have gained recognition as flagship species (for freshwater biodiversity) with the scientific community. In other words, it suggests thatthreats that lead to a decline in Mahseer populations can only spell disaster for all aquatic life-forms and flora and fauna dependent on a riverine ecosystem.
Protected areas in the Western Ghats and the Himalayas are the last remaining havens for Mahseer species, as longitudinal connectivity is extremely important for their migration. There is also very little known about Mahseer, and more studies are being planned in their natural habitats.It will only help us get a better understanding of the species to aid theconservation of freshwater biodiversity, thereby securing a safe future for communities that live alongside rivers.
Growing concern for the world's declining fisheries and threats to fish passageways has led to a new initiative called ‘World Fish Migration Day'. This is a first-of-its-kind global awareness event which aims to highlight the importance of migratory species of fish and their habitats. In the Indian context, Mahseerare the perfect mascot to bring attention to conservation issues related to rivers. The year 2014 promises to be the beginning of many fisheries related conservation initiatives, as scientists and researchers are paying heed to the plight of inland fisheries in India.