Clarion call: Fish out of water

Clarion call: Certain fish species are fast disappearing from the Western Ghats. But a collaborative effort is saving these endemic gems

System in place Fish-breeding tanks at the Dr Shivaram Karanth Pilikula Nisarga Dhama aquarium, Mangaluru

When the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List warned that a few Western Ghats freshwater fish species were the collateral damage of rapid economic development as early as 2012, a few conservationists pressed the panic button. This has led to some developments.

Every monsoon, many volunteer groups collect tank-bred fingerlings endemic to the region in oxygen-filled water containers and deposit them in their natural habitat in the Western Ghats. This movement is catching up even with the forest department (wildlife division).

Many freshwater fishes, molluscs and aquatic plants have started showing a high degree of ‘tendencies for extinction’. The IUCN report had stated that ‘The results of this latest findings show that freshwater fish are the most threatened group in Peninsular India, with more than a third (37%) at risk of global extinction.’

For example, the endangered Deccan Mahseer (Tor khudree) is one of the most sought-after food fish in Peninsular India. Due to overharvesting, invasive species and pollution, its numbers have declined steeply in the past decade, leaving some fisheries facing collapse.

In danger zone

Another iconic species of fish, Miss Kerala (Puntius denisonii), is also classified as ‘Endangered’, as it is targeted and collected for ornamental fish trade. Its habitat is being impacted by water pollution from plantations and urban areas.

But the list appears to have gone closer to the Western Ghats waterbodies, where the freshwater seasonal fish varieties are on the way to extinction.

“If we do not take control of things now, we might lose them forever,” says Dr N S Nazeer, who is spearheading the quiet revolution in repopulating the Western Ghats waterbodies with tank-bred endemic species.

“Thanks to the Dr Shivaram Karanth Pilikula Nisarga Dhama aquarium that has taken up breeding the fish species in tanks for this purpose, we get at least 24 varieties of endemic species in good quantity thrice every year,” Dr Nazeer adds. 

The IUCN Global Species Programme’s Freshwater Biodiversity Unit, in collaboration with the Zoo Outreach Organisation (ZOO), conducted the Western Ghats Freshwater Biodiversity Assessment to review the global conservation status and distributions of 1,146 freshwater species. 

The Shivaram Karanth Pilikula Nisarga Dhama has put together a campaign model. “We have started breeding in captivity 24 types of Western Ghats sweet-water fishes including Mugudu, Morante, Tharu (small fish), and Karmbol and Kijaan (Small fishes that habitat slushy fields and the surface of seasonal waterbodies). We have a network of collectors of fish, a laboratory, and tanks to breed them, and as frequently as a quarter of a year, we release them in the rivers Netravati and Kumaradhara, and their various tributaries,” Dr Suryaprakash Shenoy, Principal Scientist and Head of Botany Department, Regional Science Centre, says.

Why the decline

Many communities across India, particularly those living in the poorest areas, are reliant on these freshwater species for their livelihoods. This report shows that more than half (56%) of all fish and 18% of all mollusc species in the region are being used for food, and that aquatic plants have a diverse range of uses, with 28% of species providing valuable medicinal resources.

A few species like Chandradike, Malabar danio, Kijan, Bottu Kijan, Morante, Kallu Morante face extinction.

Sreenath, a sweet-water fish variety enthusiast, recalls: “In my childhood, every seasonal waterbody brimmed with varieties of fish not bigger than the little finger, and a few others showed up in monsoon puddles. I have gone in search of them in the Western Ghats fringes, but such conditions don’t exist now. So we have to go in search of perennial waterbodies to look for them. The locals have the knowledge of these sweet-water fish varieties and help us catch them for breeding.” 

A duo of ornamental fish breeders in Mangaluru taluk, Dr Ashwin Rai and Ronald K P D’Souza, both scientists, has taken up the mission to repopulate the Western Ghat waterbodies with endemic fish varieties by breeding the species in their research facility in Mangaluru.

“If not right now, they’ll face extinction soon!” Ronald reasons. “We also discovered two species of fishes and rediscovered one... The Yethinahole project is responsible for the irreparable damage to many vulnerable species of fish and the possible extinction of Etroplus canarensis (Canara pearlspot). It’s endemic to this place.”

They claim to have rediscovered Hypselobarbus pulchellus in River Netravati, which was lost to science for over 50 years and presumed extinct by many scientists.

“With the Yethinahole project, this species also could disappear,” Dr Rai adds.

Need for more

Similar efforts have been undertaken across the states adjoining the Western Ghats, like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Goa, and southern parts of Maharashtra.According to local registries created by educational institutions and enthusiasts, only 30% of the Western Ghats fish species have been available for this programme. “The IUCN lists 1,142 varieties of sweet-water fish varieties in Peninsular India,” says Dr Shenoy, out of which 27 species are under the breeding programme in Dr Shivaram Karanth Pilikula Biological park alone.

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