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2020 - What a Year That Was

mahseer fish swimming in a clear river
A huge mahseer glides through a crystal clear river. Western Ghats, south India. Photo Dencin Rons Thampy

Since the International Mahseer Conference in Chiang Mai, Thailand (report here) the world has become a very different place. That's not to say we haven't been busy within Mahseer Trust.

A post from Ian Henderson on our Facebook page shows that one of our key roles, that of sharing information, has not been as successful as we would have liked. Ian said: "all the scientific talk and money raised to Mahesser (sic) Trust... Where does it go? What difference do you make?" This article and an associated newsletter are an attempt to address these serious questions.

It is worth remembering the main driving principle of our aims is to share awareness about mahseer using the most up-to-date scientific analysis. This is not only for the benefit of mahseer, but also mahseer rivers and the people who live alongside them.

Following an almost year-long review of staffing and structure, we are moving towards having far more involvement from people living not only in mahseer range countries, but also within close proximity of mahseer rivers.

Mahseer Trust India is being rehabilitated, with new management trustees and a regional support team. In the initial stages, back in 2014, two of the current Mahseer Trust management team personally funded the almost £500 registration fees. A further £800 is now required to open two bank accounts, one for day-to-day operations and a second to allow foreign remittance to pass into the country. This sum cannot be sourced from outside India, due to the Foreign Remittance laws.

Over the longer term, MTI will be the template for setting up Mahseer Trust operations in other range countries. This will include a local management team, regional support network and a fundraising operation to allow education and outreach projects to happen. This style of operation will bring issues to the table faster, and also allow a two-way exchange of information about problems and examples of excellent work.

Despite restrictions on movement in many countries, recent weeks have seen field studies begin in south India. Thanks to negotiations creating a secure collaboration between a range of partners, including Shoal, WWF-India, Wildlife Institute of India, Kerala University of Fisheries and Ocean Studies, and Bournemouth University, funding has been raised to allow the employment of two early-career scientists, along with daily employment for local community guides. The lead and second scientists are both also receiving recording and sampling equipment and training in fish surgery. The latter will allow them to source mahseer samples at market and then remove the reproductive organs to assess sexual maturity compared to growth rate.

We are also currently in negotiation with a major Indian conservation science NGO, to extend the idea of training local scientists and field researchers across central and northern India. A member of the local team will take on the oversight role, with input from our technical advisers, to ensure standards are improved at all levels of the project, from ground-level community information gatherers, through the local sample collection researchers, up to a PhD student compiling the reports and the in-country NGO scientific staff coordinating the project.

Myanmar conservation webinar screenshot
Recent webinar to discuss how mahseer conservation is progressing in Myanmar

If the various pandemic movement restrictions gave us anything new, it was the rise of the remote conferencing webinar. Our team has been involved with a huge number of events, starting with the unique series involving representation from every mahseer range country apart from Afghanistan.

The first event focused purely on how Indian rivers and livelihoods were responding to the pandemic, on a region-by-region basis. Reports came from five correspondents with experience of north, south, east, west and central India. If you missed the report, go here.

Next, we invited collaboration from across the wider Indian subcontinent, which also showed us how some people were using the cover of movement restrictions and increased burden upon enforcement agencies to actively target protected areas for nefarious activities. The report link is here.

Finally, we brought together a number of players and opinions from across Southeast Asia to complete the picture. Although there was not a representative from China, a Malay mahseer importer of Chinese heritage gave some very important detail about the state of river in Yunnan. You can read about it here.

At the conclusion of the SE Asia meeting, Steve, Adrian and Mark stayed on to discuss mahseer diversity in the rivers of Myanmar with Frank Momberg and Zau Lunn of Flora and Fauna International, and Chris Bonzi of WWF-Myanmar. The twin issues are that the species found in the country seem to have been misunderstood at the species level and that the Indian states of Nagaland and Manipur may be introducing numbers of easily-bred Himalayan species that can freely cross the border.

To begin the process of looking at mahseer species diversity in Myanmar, Steve enlisted the help of Vincent Jalabert of Myanmar Fly Fishing Project. Together, they worked on photos of fish from across the country, but especially focusing on the Chindwin sub-basin and wider Ayerarwady basin, which are the areas most likely to be impacted by stocking in India.

Vincent has gone on to share a map on his website, along with a number of useful outreach tools to help limit destructive fish and over-fishing in the country. You can see the results of this work here.

Ongoing discussions with all the main players (see photo above) has helped to drive a set of country-specific and topic-specific working groups in a collaboration between Mahseer Trust and Fisheries Conservation Foundation. The working groups cover: taxonomy and genetics; telemetry; habitat issues; recreational angling; and communication and outreach. The country groups are currently from Pakistan, Nepal, Thailand and Myanmar, with Mahseer Trust India set to be involved in the near future.

Steve has been involved in talks with a mahseer conservation body in Malaysia and a scientific study in Indonesia to quickly bring these two important countries into the working groups.

Other webinars that have featured keynote, closing notes or session comments from members of our team include:

  • Zoological Survey of India freshwater invasive species

  • Nepal Hydroengineering College fish passes

  • Nepal National Conference on Zoology

  • Directorate of Coldwater Fisheries Research (India)

  • Kerala University of Fisheries and Ocean Studies biodiversity

  • St Albert's College (Kochi, India) freshwater biodiversity

  • Pokhara Forestry College World Otter Day

  • Kerala University biodiversity on World Fisheries Day

  • World Fish Migration Day (multiple events)

  • UN Economic Commission transboundary rivers

  • Mekong sedimentation and pollution

  • Indian National Biodiversity Conference

  • Centre for Education and Environment (India) water policy

Steve also worked in collaboration with members of River Otter Conservancy and Freshwater Turtles and Tortoises of India to create the freshwater training webinar series called Learn - Indian Freshwater Ecosystems (L-IFE). Each of the expert webinars is available to watch here.

Poster advertising a fish and river connectivity webinar
Programme flyer for the L-IFE webinar on fish and river connectivity

For the Nepal Zoology Conference, Steve, with help from Sushan, reviewed all of the available literature on fish stocking in both Indian and Nepal. This involved covering the current laws and country guidelines, as well as studying scientific literature and examples of 'best practise' from around the world.

The situation in Nepal is rather vague, where the guidelines suggest that fish stocking is subject to 'appropriate permissions' but with no further clarification about how these would be given or denied.

Although the Indian situation appears much more clearly defined, with the Ministry of Environment and Forests having very robust procedures based on the widely accepted IUCN guidelines, there is a competing and confusing fish breeding and stocking policy available under the Ministry of Agriculture's 'Blue Revolution'.

In other countries, there appears to be widespread acceptance that mahseer should be bred and released into ailing rivers for 'conservation' purposes. While we all wish to see more mahseer in rivers, and understand that access to breeding technologies is a key part of any conservation strategy, ignoring the reasons why mahseer are in decline and stocking single species to the detriment of other mahseer (or indeed other fish or aquatic wildlife) is counter-productive and actually leads to longer-term problems.

As we have been demonstrating at many events over the last year, the species called Tor tor (Himalayan deep-bodied mahseer, possibly more than one species) was once 'the most populous mahseer in Indian waters' according to Menon. We have data to show that in at least one river of Nepal, Tor tor made up more than 50% of mahseer stocks in the 1980s, yet there are now only Tor putitora left. Similarly, the reports, which cover sampling in the 1980s, 1990s and 200s, show that where there were once three species of mahseer, now there is only one.

Understanding the reason why we are losing species and determining correct species and how they differ from one another has to be the basis of any conservation action plan. Stocking more fish in a shrinking habitat is not a recovery, it only adds to the habitat pressures.

Releasing mahseer into Kosi River, Uttarakhand
Fish stocking programmes are becoming very popular but do nothing to address why mahseer are in decline

Having information available from each mahseer range country is a good example of how we can help to share relevant details to help rivers, fish and people across this fragile region. By bringing together reports from the ground level and combining them with the latest scientific tools, we can create coherent conservation plans and help to train local experts to best take control of their own rivers.

Members of our team have also been working on scientific publications, including these:

Headers from three mahseer study papers
Three scientific papers published during 2020 by Mahseer Trust members

Sign-up for our newsletters for a discussion on the content of these three recent papers and why they are important for mahseer conservation. We will also be sharing news of a new campaign from WWF, called Forgotten Fishes, and the forthcoming publication of a great kids' book about Matisha, the hump-backed mahseer. Email or fill in the form at the foot of the page to be added to our mailing list.

Much of the time, we are just talking, but that is the only way to create the understanding that will truly bring about change through local hands. Come and talk to us...


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