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Home Indian History & Culture Bhutan is fighting hard to conserve the Threatened Iconic Fish 'Golden Mahseer'

Bhutan is fighting hard to conserve the Threatened Iconic Fish ‘Golden Mahseer’

In Bhutan, the golden mahseer is considered as one of the eight auspicious signs associated with Buddhism, as practised in the Himalayan region

  • The golden mahseer of Bhutan is also known as ‘Tor putitora’
  • The Bhutan government is taking steps to conserve it by allocating hatcheries right besides the dams where these fishes are usually found
  • This doesn’t stop the Bhutanese government from building hydroelectric dams 

One of the best known fish found in South Asian waters is the golden mahseer or ‘Tor putitora’. Growing to a length of nine feet and weighing up to 40kg, makes it one of the most sought-after gaming fish in the world. At one point, the fish was found along the whole Himalayan belt, from northern Pakistan to present-day Myanmar. It was also found in the waters of Iran and Thailand.

Unfortunately, environmental degradation and unrestricted fishing have had a catastrophic impact on its population. Today, it is listed on the International Union of Conservation of Nature’s Red List of threatened species. In India, the private company, Tata Power has spearheaded a campaign to breed and release fishes into the rivers. In Nepal, it continues to face severe challenges as laws go unenforced.

“The rivers of southern Bhutan are its greatest hope for survival, as long as action is taken soon to keep the threats to mahseer at bay” states a World Wildlife Fund report. The health of the big fish is also a measure of the health of the river ecosystems of Bhutan, which impact all the flora and fauna living in and around the water bodies.

For Bhutan, a Buddhist country, the golden mahseer has religious significance as well, as the fish is one of the eight auspicious signs associated with Buddhism as practised in the Himalayan region.

The challenge of dams

This iconic fish is found in the Punatsangchhu river, which runs for 320 km from its source in Bhutan to the point where it meets the Brahmaputra in India. Two major hydroelectric dam projects – Punatsangchhu-I and Punatsangchhu-II – are being built on the river.

“The golden mahseer migrates all the way from India to upstream rivers in Bhutan for breeding and feeding  that since no proper scientific study had been conducted, there is no way of knowing how the dams will affect the fish. Nevertheless, since the fish have been sighted upstream in Punatsangchhu earlier, the dams may prevent the mahseer from migrating for spawning and feeding.” Singye Tshering, programme director at the National Centre for Riverine and Lake Fisheries told thethirdpole.net.

Rivers flowing in Bhutan. Image source Wikimedia commons
A River in Bhutan. Image source Wikimedia commons

There is no official record kept of the fish in the area, but according to Kinley, who was posted by the Bhutanese government, 15 years ago to keep track of the iconic fish, the number has declined since the hydroelectric projects commenced.

Mitigation measures

Singye Tshering told thethirdpole.net “while this may not be an ideal mitigation measure, it is recommended especially for conditions found in Bhutan, where gorges, rugged terrain and swiftly flowing rivers mean that fish passages and fish ladders will not work to offset the blockages created by dam construction. He said fish migrating upstream for breeding are collected and bred artificially in the hatchery near the dam and later released back into the river. That way, we can ensure that the fish are able to breed and sustain their population.” Officials from National Centre for Riverine and Lake Fisheries and environment officials at the Punatsangchhu project identified alocation for a hatchery at Harrachu, a few kilometres away from Punatsangchhu-II, in November 2015. The golden mahseer hatchery project is being built at an estimated cost of $2.8 million.

The management plan includes the identification of spawning and feeding grounds and declaring them as sanctuaries as well as promoting and developing fish-based tourism to promote a sense of ownership among the people to protect fishery resources. With World Wildlife Fund funding, the ministry of forest and agriculture has started a scientific remote radio telemetry study on the golden mahseer to understand its habitat. The project also hopes to establish baseline data for the mahseer population and identify migration patterns. The study is underway in the Manas river basin covering the Mangdechhu and Dangmechhu rivers.

Taking steps to conserve mahseer, Bhutan continues to build hydroelectric dam which is the main source of their economy.

-by Vrushali Mahajan, an intern at NewsGram. Twitter: Vrushali Mahajan

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