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Freshwater fish and fishing communities of the Hindu Kush Himalaya: looking at an oft-neglected ecological and livelihood challenge
It would not be farfetched to say that freshwater fish species are embedded in the cultures, traditions, and religions of ethnic communities in the Himalaya. Intricate fish carvings can be found on the walls of temples in many mountain villages, and fish form one of the eight auspicious symbols of Tibetan Buddhism. Often represented in the form carp, the two fish that form the symbol originally represented the rivers Ganges and Yamuna. As creatures that have historically swum unrestrained in Himalayan rivers, the fish symbolize happiness.
In many remote mountain villages, golden mahseer (Tor putitora) – a symbol of pride and wealth – are still caught and presented to visiting would-be in-laws. I have worked in the region for a decade now and have seen, first hand, how many ethnic groups depend on freshwater fish for provisioning services – i.e. fisheries, fish culture, and fish as a nutrient source. Wild fish that are locally caught are sometimes the only source of protein, especially for pregnant and lactating mothers, in some poorer sections of society.
Fishermen in the mountains say that they are increasingly catching juvenile fish (Figure 1a, b). Most fully mature fish are caught before they can complete their spawning migration, calling into question the long-term sustainability of fish populations.
Figure 1b: Golden mahseer juveniles form a part of the daily catch (Photo: N. Gupta)
Focus group discussions have repeatedly exposed how a decrease in the water level of freshwater systems, which are dependent on rainfall and glacial melt, significantly affects fishing activities in river basins. Fish landings were reported as being lower in quantity (total weight of individual fish caught) resulting in the unnecessary capture of juvenile fish (during both wet and dry seasons) and further hampering the long-term sustainability of the native fish populations. As a result, there is now less fish to consume, fuelling the dilemma regarding “how much to sell and how much to eat” among ethnic households, especially those who depend exclusively on fishing for a living.
To make matters worse, fish consumption may not remain safe for much longer, given the amount of untreated agricultural and industrial waste that reach rivers. Various studies have found unsafe levels of iron, zinc, lead, and chromium in fish, which exceed the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) standards. Studies conclude that the consumption of fish with these recorded concentrations of metals pose risks to human health.
The livelihood security and general wellbeing of ethnic groups dependent on fish in the Himalaya is challenged daily and acutely. Many male members have very heavy-heartedly mentioned to me that outmigration to nearby towns and cities in search of better livelihood security could be the only way out for them, leaving the elderly, women, and children behind.
So how did we get here, despite knowing very well the multitude of key socio-ecological functions that freshwater fish species provide in the region?
The pressure from a rapidly growing human population and subsequent urbanization has led to an overexploitation of the available habitat for fish species. Pollution (point and non-point sources), flow modification by virtue of obstructions and dams, destruction and degradation of riparian habitats, unsustainable (i.e. beyond the requirement of local use) sand and boulder mining from river beds (see Figure 2), illegal fishing methods (e.g. use of dynamite and poisons) and invasion of non-native species (e.g. common carp, brown trout) have played crucial roles in imperiling fish diversity in the Himalayan freshwater systems.
Figure 2: Sand mining along the Kosi River in Uttarakhand, India (Photo: N. Gupta)
By 2050, temperature across the Himalayan region is projected to increase by about 1–2°C compared to a 1960s baseline; the monsoon is expected to become longer/more erratic; precipitation is projected to change by 5% on average; and the intensity of extreme rainfall events is likely to increase. Furthermore, climate models project substantial losses in glacial mass and area in the coming decades for most parts of the region (Figure 3). These projected impacts are likely to present additional risks to native fish diversity in the Himalaya.
Figure 3: The Gangotri glacier inside the Gangotri National Park in Uttarakhand, India (Photo: N. Gupta)
Given the ongoing and projected adverse impacts to this critical protein source of the Himalaya, we must acknowledge that there is a need to bring about long-term ecological and socio-economic success stories through targeted, participatory, and community-supported conservation actions. Take, for example, the river community-led projects in Meghalaya, Northeast India which are assisting the survival of the mahseer fish species. We need to see whether targeted action can accelerate recovery and opportunity through bottom-up coordination.
There are also a few immediate actions that can be taken to influence positive changes for the fish species of the Himalaya. A community-enforced closed fishing season/area or a reserved fish capture area for a village to protect fish, keep a check on arriving pollutants, and secure local livelihoods could be a possible option. The implications of fish as a vital ecosystem service substantially researched and fed into policy-making – with linked risks for food, biodiversity protection, employment and economic progress, and the livelihoods of indigenous communities – could be another option for the Himalayan biodiversity hotspot.
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