A sudden whirlpool in the usually calm waters surrounding the hills of Meghalaya can mean only one thing – a school of frenzied chocolate mahseer, locally also known as Na.rong, has gathered together to eat puffed rice that someone has thrown into the water from an elevated point.
The chocolate mahseer, listed as a Near Threatened species in the IUCN Red List, is thriving in the Nengmandalgre Fish Sanctuary − one of the 79 pocket fish sanctuaries in the state, completely managed by the local communities. The conservation success is the result of seven decades of Meghalaya’s tryst with fish conservation.
In Meghalaya, the way of life itself is an example of how humans and nature are interdependent.
A fishing ban that led to the fish sanctuaries
Fish is an important part of the diet in Meghalaya. The northeastern state also has a rich history of traditional fishing; the indigenous community would go into the streams and the rivers with hooks and lines, harpoons, nets, and other gear. Many times, tuberous roots of certain plants, barks and fruits would also be used to poison the fish.
Fishing, both for food and recreational purposes, would typically take place in the winter months, known as Shoh-kha-ru and would sometimes result in conflict between neighbouring villages over the ownership of the river. One such dispute over community fishing across the Amalayee river led to a fight between the two villages on either side of the river: Nongbareh-rim and Nongbareh-Iyntiar. The Lyngdoh, or the traditional religious head, gauged the gravity of the situation and the possible repercussions of overexploitation of natural resources and decided to intervene. He made both the villages understand the importance of conserving the fish for their own benefit, and decreed that no one would be allowed to fish there. Violators, it was added, would be heavily fined. Following this ban, the mahseers of Amalayee flourished and in 1955, a time when fish conservation was not a well-known concept, the Amalayee Mahseer Fish Sanctuary was instituted.
“Slowly certain pockets in the Garo Hills and one in West Jaintia Hills established similar pocket fish sanctuaries, where the community members took the responsibility of safeguarding the fishes,” Meda Aihun Khongjliw of the state fisheries department told Mongabay-India.
The Songkalwari Fish Sanctuary and the Wachiwari Fish Sanctuary on the Simsang river in the West Garo Hills are notable examples. Bulbul S. Sangma, a community member of Rombagre village which takes care of this sanctuary, said that they have been protecting the fishes of the Wari, or river pool, since 1965, making it one of the earliest of its kind.
“Our motivation comes from our ancestors. Our ancestors preserved the fishes for food. Similarly, we preserve the fish to offer to our deity during Agal Makka, a traditional ritual,” Sangma said. In addition, the community had become aware of the dwindling population of the fishes as a result of overexploitation. Therefore, in presence of the village headman, they decided to establish two fish sanctuaries — Songkalwari and the Wachiwari, on the Simsang river. In 2003, the state government’s International Fund for Agriculture Department (IFAD) project supported this effort, and later, in 2013, the fishery department helped in the construction of a viewpoint and a tree-house.
Lessons from the past
“The ‘motivation level’ of different communities is, however, different,” Khongjliw said, indicating that such sanctuaries were not found across all parts of the state. The successes of the ones established were also not documented.
In 2012, under the Meghalaya State Aquaculture Mission (of the fisheries department), this concept was therefore encouraged across the state. “The aim was to conserve endemic fish species in these sanctuaries. But the focus shifted particularly to the chocolate mahseer and the golden mahseer,” she said. The chocolate mahseer (Neolissochilus hexagonolepis), called Na.rong in the local language, is near threatened in the IUCN Red List, while the golden mahseer (Tor putitora), called Ka.chol, is endangered.
Reverend Jimmy Carter D. Sangma, a community member and the Chairperson of the Nengmandalgre Fish Sanctuary, points at a massive school of chocolate mahseer swimming together. This demonstrates the success of their conservation mission. The fish sanctuary on the Chibok River in the Garo Hills was established in 2015.
“Our forefathers lived in harmony with nature. They did community fishing using different gears; they also used plants like the Maka.Naru, Rutel to ‘poison’ the fishes, although it was actually an attempt to stupefy them so they could be caught. The fish would revive in one and half hour,” he added.
Over-fishing, and over exploitation of natural resources, however, have serious repercussions, and when the community was made aware of this, they agreed to the concept of installing a sanctuary where the fishes would be protected. “Fishing is allowed upstream and downstream of the river, beyond the three-kilometre stretch of the sanctuary,” D. Sangma explained. The community is extremely vigilant in its duty and looks out for violators who may attempt to break the rule. A heavy penalty of Rs 30,000 is levied on defaulters—seven people were fined in 2020. In some other places the fine may also include a pig, a cow, a bag of rice, sugar, and packets of biscuits.
Mawsadang village shares a similar story. Pristine in its setting, the community members of this village are very particular not to allow anyone to fish in their fish sanctuary. “Our sanctuary is on the Umngi river, and we protect the fishes in this stretch—100 metres downstream and 200 metres upstream,” the village headman, Bimdorsing Nongbet, said. Most of the fishes here are of the local variety, Khasaw, as they say in local parlance, that mostly belong to the Mahseer family. “We are concerned about the environment,” Nongbet continued, “And we understand the simple fact that what is good for the environment, is good for us and our health.”
Environmental and socio-economic benefits
However, fish does form an important part of the diet here, and people are allowed to fish beyond the stretches of the sanctuaries. “We also allow the community to fish in the fish reserve area once a year, with a set limit on the size of the catch,” D. Sangma said, adding, “We don’t have a fixed date; it depends on the weather and other things, and the catch is distributed among the community members.”
What is even more heartening is that the community has observed an increasing size in their catch, upstream and downstream, of the fish sanctuaries—indicating an increase in population of all fishes.
“The population of fishes has definitely increased. People are able to get a bigger catch, and it is not just the Mahseer family, but all other local varieties, like the Na. wak (category of fishes belonging to the Labeo species),” Nongbet said. D. Sangma agreed and added that it was because the fishes were allowed to breed unharmed in the sanctuaries.
“Not just fishes, the aquatic life, in general, is thriving as a result of these fish sanctuaries,” Khongjliw added, “In the Garo Hills, people have said that they are witnessing more turtles and aquatic plants around the sanctuaries. We have not conducted a study yet, because a decade is still not long enough in terms of learning the impact of conservation.”
The impact of conservation has been felt socio-economically by the local community. As more and more tourists reach these places to witness shoals of fishes swimming together and witness rivers come alive amid pristine greenery, the locals have set up small shops to sell tea, snacks, and also fish food in order to earn revenue. Most of these shops are run by women and sometimes even sell traditional food. The sanctuaries charge a nominal entry fee of five rupees. “In the peak tourist season, during winters, a tea shop can earn as much as 40,000 rupees a month,” D. Sangma said, “We have had researchers from Japan and Africa, and tourists from all over the globe visit us.”