Fish, Fisheries, Fisherfolk

WFD 2022: Positive River Fisheries Reports from India & Dam Removal Abroad

(Feature Image: Govindamma (extreme left) fishing for prawns in Kosasthalaiyar river with others from her Irular community. They wade through the water for 2-4 kms to catch them. Credit: People’s Archive for Rural India (PARI))

On the occasion of World Fisheries Day (WFD) 2022, this report by SANDRP tracks some positive stories on river fish and fisher in India & Dam removal action abroad. In subsequent part on this occasion, the mass fish death incidents in Indian rivers, wetlands, lakes would be covered along with updates on emerging threats of invasive fish, riverbed mining, pollution, encroachments, microplastic over the past one year. The third part would cover the mass fish death incidents in lakes and ponds in India and the fourth part would focus on continuing struggle of coastal fisherfolks and relevant issues.  The fifth and last part on the series would highlight issues concerning aquatic bio-diversity in the country.   

Dams, Hydro Projects Destroying Fish, Fishers in Indian Rivers                                   

WWF 83% drop in freshwater species globally in 50 years The Asia-Pacific region that includes India has seen a 55% loss. The causes: habitat degradation and loss, exploitation, the introduction of invasive species, pollution, the climate crisis and disease as per the Living Planet Report 2022. The biennial report does not have India-specific data but WWF India representatives said the country is also extremely vulnerable to massive biodiversity loss. WWF India officials said at the launch that most of India’s river systems are not free flowing and hence their biodiversity has declined. Globally, only 37% of the rivers longer than 1000 km remain free flowing over the entire length. When some fish species migrate along these swim-ways, the presence of dams and reservoirs pose a threat to their survival.

“We have to manage our existing dams and reservoirs better, keeping in mind the ecology of the rivers as well us as flood risk from last minute releases, reduce our dependence on a few water guzzling crops in favour of diversity and seriously reconsider proposed new dams,” said Jagdish Krishnaswamy, Dean, School of Environment and Sustainability, Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bengaluru. On invasive species which the report identifies as a major threat to native biodiversity, India is severely impacted in both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. “We must note that well before this report came out, Tamil Nadu is the first state with a policy on invasive species and with management plans for regulation and restoration. They deserve our support and encouragement and should serve as role model for other states,” he added.

Madhya Pradesh Mahseer fish facing existential threat in Narmada rivers Dr Shriparna Saxena, an aquaculture expert working in coordination with the forest department for 2 decades for the conservation of Mahseer, told PTI that a survey conducted in 1964 had showed there used to be 25 Mahseer out of every 100 fish in the Narmada river.  But due to the construction of many dams across the Narmada river and its tributaries and other human interventions, the number of Mahseer in the Narmada has now decreased to less than 1%, she said: “Fishermen living on the Narmada river banks say they are if lucky, they are able to spot a Mahseer once in six months”.

“We had found a 5 feet 4-inch long Mahseer weighing 17 kg in the river at Khalghat in Dhar district in 2017. We have not seen such a big fish till date,” the expert said. Asked about the Mahseer fish facing existential crisis following the construction of reservoirs, MP Fishermen Welfare and Fisheries Development Department’s principal secretary Kalpana Shrivastava claimed “dams are also necessary like Mahaseer.” The govt announced that it is going to start a campaign from next month to save the endangered Mahseer fish species. (25 Sep 2022)

Uttarakhand Fears of ‘devastation’ from the largest dam on Yamuna In the last week of December, one of the two turbines at the Vyasi dam were tested, according to Yashpal Thakur, a member of the Yamuna Sanitation Committee. The water level of the Yamuna fell dramatically on the 29th, two days before the turbine was tested. “People were afraid that the Yamuna had dried up completely. The fish came to the surface as the water receded,” says Tomar, describing onlookers “hitting the fish with sticks and some with stones, as they flopped around” so they could take them to eat or sell. “It was a very heart breaking scene,” he says, his voice trembling.  (24 Jan. 2022)

The Mahseer fish is also included in the Red List of IUCN. Hundreds of fish were found dead when the water in the lake increased or decreased.  (14 May 2022)

Jammu & Kashmir Environmental cost of new hydro projects Resettlement, downstream hydrology, muck generation and disposal, the cumulative impact of submergence, loss of forest land and habitats, and impact on fish such as the famous Chenab Trout are a few of the issues arising out of these hydropower projects. These dams also impact the region’s seismicity, silt discharge into the river, transport and road construction, ambient air quality, local water sources, groundwater, and the region’s overall water security.  (15 Oct. 2022)

Karnataka Mekedatu Project: Killing forest for water (By AC Lakshmana former environment secretary) Cauvery Sanctuary is an important constituent of the connectivity necessary for the movement for long-ranging animals starting from Mahsheer fish to elephants and tigers; the schedule-I species under Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. We have already lost 14,000 hectares of forests in Saravathi Linganmakki submersion, 6,800 hectares for the Varahi project, 1,000 hectares for Talkalale reservoir, 1,880 hectares for Chakra dam, 2,000 hectares for Karnataka Power Corporation Township, 800 hectares for Saravathy tailrace project, 800 hectares for KPTCL projects and several thousand hectares for rehabilitation of evacuees from these projects.  (28 Jan. 2022)

Industry Fish-safe turbine claims lack substance This claims to have designed new hydropower turbine that is safe for fish passage. Sufficient details not given here to judge if the claims have substance. (5 Aug 2022)

Emmanuel Theophilus on FB post comment:- Yes, too sketchy, and prima facie pretentious. How can blunt blades do anything about all the other parameters? Water pressure, temperature, turbidity, and much more? How can stored and piped water ever mimic natural flows of a river?

Positive Reports on River Fish, Fishers

SANDRP Blog Muktadhara Tirthan: How one fish & many people saved a river Story of possibly the only River Valley in India that is a No-Go for Dams and Hydropower Projects. How did this come to pass?

Local Trout Farms which take water from the river and return it to the river Photo: Abhay Kanvinde

Story of Tirthan is a mixed bag. One free flowing river does not absolve the state from the reality that all other rivers are dammed many times over, the process has not been accountable and transparent, local concerns are not accounted for, EIAs are dishonest, public hearings are a sham, implementation is shoddy, monitoring or compliance is non-existent, water sources are drying up, muck dumped into rivers is making them into ticking time bombs, fish ladders are a joke, environmental flows are for namesake and disasters have multiplied.

All the other projects: from the protests at Kinnaur to blasting at Luhri need to be respected and looked at according to their own merits. One Tirthan is too tiny to absolve the state of all these impacts. We need more Tirthans.  (15 June 2022)

India Rivers Forum IRW 2021 concludes with a pledge to work for fish, fishers; healthy rivers India Rivers Week 2021 concluded today with a pledge to work towards protection of inland fisheries, fishers and rivers for their conservation and rejuvenation. The annual event, organised by the India Rivers Forum (IRF) since 2014, saw bureaucrats, activists, academicians and community leaders participating in five riveting virtual sessions.

The program started on November 8 with an inaugural event focused on impacts of river pollution on fisheries and fishers followed by subsequent sessions on fragmented rivers (dams, barrages and embankments), the need for better science, data and advocacy, the changing political economy of riverine fisheries and finally the national event on issues around governance.  (27 Nov. 2021)

The video recording of India Rivers Forum’ third webinar on Healthy Rivers, Fish and Fishers Fish focusing Science, Data & Advocacy organized on Nov. 17th can be seen here and the Facebook recording of fourth webinar on Healthy Rivers, Fish and Fishers: Changing Political Economy held on Nov. 20 can be seen here.

Rivers of Life Seminar by Azim Prem Ji University in Bengaluru. Experts are talking about the various aspects of riverine biodiversity – especially in the context of the Cauvery river.  (04 Nov. 2022)

SANDRP Blog Rare book on Rivers and fisherfolks of North India (Guest Article by Dr. Ruchi Shree) The arrival of books viz. Dipesh Chakravarty’s The Climate of History in Planetary Age (2021), Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016), A Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis (2021), Sunil Amruth’s The Unruly Waters: How Mountain Rivers and Monsoons have shaped South Asia’s History (2019) and numerous others has blurred the disciplinary divide between literature, politics and environment.

These books have brought attention to the worsening environmental crisis worldwide and how developing countries or the global south is facing its severe brunt. As a consequence, one may notice an upsurge in literature in hindi and other regional languages around environmental issues in India. Last year, Shekhar Pathak’s book Hari Bhari Ummeed (2021) narrated the complexities of Chipko Movement at its 40 years and now this book here for review joins the club of interdisciplinary texts on environmental issues in India.  (4 Aug 2022)

Tamil Nadu Documentary story of Adyar – River Pollution & Floods The Story of Adyar is documenting the difficulties faced by the local communities of fishermen living next to the river. They are being encroached by building sites and skyscrapers while the bad sewage management threatens their livelihood by destroying the ecosystem of the river. In the same locations, where they used to catch a variety of fish in the past, they are now struggling to survive in between plastic bottles and waste.

Several interviews with the community, experts, and environmentalists draw a picture of the causes for the depletion of the river Adyar. Badly planned city development has not only left the river a public health risk but also increased the occurrence of floods that affect the whole urban area of Chennai. The documentary includes footage from the calamity that struck the capital of Tamil Nadu in 2015 – the Chennai floods.  (24 Nov. 2021)

Other Relevant Reports

Chennai Govindamma: ‘I have been in water all my life’ Wading through the Kosasthalaiyar river near Chennai, Govindamma has been catching prawns since she was a little girl. Now in her 70s, she does it to support her family, despite her bruises and failing eyesight. (14 Jul 2022)

Delhi Photo blog on fisher people and Yamuna.  (30 Dec. 2021)A report on the floodplains launched on March 3, 2022 – Bottom-Up Mapping of the Yamuna – revealed that 56 bastis, with about 9,350 households, and roughly 46,750 people, are on the floodplains, Zone O in the city’s master plan. Of the total number of households, a little more than half, that is, 4,835 households, practise farming as a livelihood, while others rely on daily wage work, fishing, nurseries, and animal herding, according to the report, prepared by Social Design Collaborative, members of the Main Bhi Dilli campaign, and Basti Suraksha Manch.

In the midst of the river yamuna, Babu Lal threw his net in the hope of a good catch. Ishtayaq Rasool/ The Citizen

The study makes recommendations including that of integrating the riverfront development project with farming, making farming viable by providing welfare schemes to farmers along with training for organic farming, and rehabilitation if eviction must be resorted to.  (04 March 2022)

Positive Reports from South Asia and Rest of the World

Pakistan Story of freshwater fish The Sher Mahi, an indigenous fish of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, is facing serious threats to survival due to climatic changes, water pollution and overfishing. The scientific name of the fish is “Clupisoma Naziri” and it is found in river basins adjacent to Afghanistan. Fish lovers proudly compare it with trout, because both the species have spine horns and such small scales that they do not have to be removed to cook the fish.

But this fish may be in trouble. Experts in the fisheries department of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, zoologists and those in the fish business have observed a decrease in the population of Sher Mahi in its main habitat, the Kabul river.

They believe extreme weather events – especially severe floods and erratic rainfall – combined with water contamination and over-fishing are the main cause of the depletion. The construction of the Warsak dam in 1960, also added problems. The dam blocked the migratory route of the fish, which winds from Kunar-Kabul-Jalalabad in Afghanistan to Torkhem-Peshawar to Charsadda-Mardan and to some areas of Indus river at Nizampur (Nowshera district) in KP and finally to Kalabagh in Punjab.  (01 May 2018)

PFF activists dance in the street during the rally. Dawn

PFF rally demands ‘personhood’ status for River Indus Leaders and activists of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum took out a rally titled ‘Provincial water rights’ and staged a sit-in on May 31 2022.  (1 June 2022)

10-year ban on commercial fishing in rivers The Punjab government has for the first time imposed a 10-year ban on commercial fishing in the provincial water due to critical depletion of fisheries in the rivers. An order issued by Fisheries Department Secretary Shahid Zaman reveals that the ban shall come into force from Sept 1, 2022, and shall remain in force till July 31, 2032. There shall be a complete ban on fishing by means of all gears except by rod and line in the waters, including River Indus within the boundaries of Punjab, its reservoirs and pond areas linked to barrages/headworks, says the order.

For fishing through rod and line, weekly and monthly angling permits will be issued with a fee of Rs 500 and Rs 5,000 per permit, respectively, for every district and the angling time will be from sunrise to sunset. Only five fish or total eight kilo weight, whichever is higher, per permit per day shall be allowed to be taken away. (3 May 2022)

Bhutan Plan to secure tigers of the rivers Golden Mahseer (Tor putitora), also known as Tigers of the Rivers, is an endangered fish species found in rivers of Southern and Eastern Bhutan. The fish is locally called sernya. The Golden Mahseer Conservation Action Plan for Bhutan 2022-2032 identified illegal fishing, hydropower dams, and weak protection of spawning areas as the top three threats to golden mahseer conservation in the country. The plan, prepared by the Nature Conservation Division under the forests and park services department, aims to conserve viable populations of golden mahseer and sustain its ecosystem. The division has identified 12 threats to golden mahseer conservation in Bhutan.  (03 Aug. 2022)

Bangladesh Enigma called Hilsa fish Bangladesh has 3 kinds of Hilsa. The most famous species which we call Padma Ilish is called Tenualosa Ilisha. This Hilsa is widely found in Bangladesh from the Bay of Bengal to our rivers. They are the tastiest of all hilsas – rich in fat and flavour. The second kind is known as Chandana Ilish. In scientific terms it is called Nenuacosa Toli. Chandana Ilish was once widely available in the Meghna estuary and the Bay, but its number has decreased over time due to over-catching and netting of fries or Jatka.

The third kind is known as Gurta Ilish or Hilsha Kelle in scientific terms. This species does not travel to the rivers and are found only in the sea. Hilsha was known in English as Indian Shad as it falls under the family Calpidae Shad. But now it is referred to as Hilsa.

The fish has a wide geographical distribution. But about 60 percent of the fish is caught in Bangladesh amounting to 3.87 lakh metric tons last year. About 20 percent of the population is caught in Myanmar and 15 percent in India. The rest are found in Oman, Pakistan and Bahrain. “We are trying to patent Hilsa of the Padma as our own distinct fish,” said Hilsha researcher Dr Md Anisur Rahman, principal scientific officer of Bangladesh Fisheries Research Institute. “We are proud of this fantastic fish. It is our own wealth.”  (12 April 2016)

MEKONG 224 new species found in Mekong region World Wildlife Fund’s latest update on the greater Mekong region released on Jan. 26, 2022 highlights the need to protect the rich biodiversity and habitats in the region, which includes Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar. The species listed were found in 2020 but last year’s report was delayed. The monkey, a new species of Popa langur found on the extinct Mt. Popa volcano in Myanmar, was the only new mammal. There are also dozens of newly identified reptiles, frogs and newts, fish and 155 plant species, including the only known succulent bamboo species, found in Laos.  (26 Jan. 2022)

At only 20 years old, María Barrios decided she wanted to be a fisher, a job that has long been considered men’s work (Image: Celina Mutti Lovera / Territorios y Resistencias)

USA Female fishers persevere as the Paraná’s water level drops Amid an extraordinary loss of flow in the Paraná river in Argentina, a cooperative seeks to improve income for women in artisanal fishing.  (11 Feb. 2022)

Dam Removal Campaign & Activities

Europe Record number of dams removed from rivers in 2021At least 239 barriers, including dams and weirs, were removed across 17 countries in Europe in 2021, in a record-breaking year for dam removals across the continent. Spain led the way, with 108 structures taken out of the country’s rivers. “Our efforts to expand dam removals across Europe are gathering speed,” said Pao Fernández Garrido, project manager for the World Fish Migration Foundation, who helped produce Dam Removal Europe’s annual report.  (16 May 2022)

2021 Dam Removal Progress report A total of 4,984 dams have been removed so far, according to data from nations across Europe —France, Sweden, Finland, Spain, Scotland, Denmark, Portugal, Italy, Switzerland, Estonia, Germany, England and Wales.

The report serves as a means for European countries to evaluate EU policies and track the progress and impact of the removal of dams and subsequent river restoration. The 2021 report shows an increase in both the total number of removals and the number of European countries reporting barrier removals. The EU’s 2030 Biodiversity Strategy lists restoring 25,000 km of rivers across the bloc to a “free-flowing state” as one of the key steps to improve degraded ecosystems. The Biodiversity Strategy is a core part of the European Green Deal.

The Dam Removal Progress report has been prepared by Dam Removal Europe (DRE), an organisation that aims to restore rivers in the continent that have high cultural or natural importance. It is a coalition of seven organisations – World Wildlife Fund, The Rivers Trust, The Nature Conservancy, the European Rivers Network, Rewilding Europe, Wetlands International, and the World Fish Migration Foundation.  (17 May 2022)

Norway Hydro dam blasted to restore river health & fish stocksA dam that has blocked the Tromsa River in Norway for more than 100 years was blown up with dynamite in second week of January 2022, freeing migratory routes for fish. Built in 1916, the 7 metre high dam in the small town of Fåvang, in Innlandet, east Norway, has not been in use for more than 50 years. Campaigners say removing the dam will help fish in the area thrive again, including grayling, burbot, Alpine bullhead and common minnows. It is hoped the main beneficiary will be the lake-dwelling trout, which can weigh more than 10kg and feeds in downstream lakes and the Lågen.  (14 Jan. 2022)

USA Tribes leading the way to remove dams & restore ecosystems Like Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe many other tribes have looked to the success of the Elwha River dam removals in bringing down fish-blocking dams in their lands as well, including along the Snake River and the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest.

Together, the country’s 2 million dams block access to more than 600,000 miles of river for fish. And by 2030, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that 80% of those dams will be beyond their 50-year lifespans. Given how obsolete and potentially dangerous this infrastructure will be, not to mention its negative effects on declining fish stocks, the best solution for many aging dams is to simply remove them. But bringing down a dam is a big job.  (14 July 2021)

US advances largest dam demolition in history Decision by regulators comes after years of advocacy by Native American tribes and environmentalists:- U.S. regulators approved a plan Thursday (Nov. 17) to demolish four dams on a California river and open up hundreds of miles of salmon habitat that would be the largest dam removal and river restoration project in the world when it goes forward.

Jamie Holt, lead fisheries technician for the Yurok Tribe, right, and Gilbert Myers count dead chinook salmon pulled from a trap in the lower Klamath River on June 8, 2021, in Weitchpec, Calif. (AP Photo/Nathan Howard, File)

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s unanimous vote on the lower Klamath River dams is the last major regulatory hurdle and the biggest milestone for a $500 million demolition proposal championed by Native American tribes and environmentalists for years. The project would return the lower half of California’s second-largest river to a free-flowing state for the first time in more than a century.”   (18 Nov. 2022)

Report World Fish Migration Day 2022 May 21, 2022 is World Fish Migration Day—a global celebration to raise awareness on the importance of free flowing rivers and migratory fish. Take a look at these features to learn how we work to address barriers to fish migration and open their passage ways.  (13 May 2022)

Restoring dammed rivers using artificial floods Artificial floods are controlled releases from dams that can help reverse the damage done to downstream rivers and aquatic ecosystems. They do this by mimicking natural flows to mobilise and transport sediment downstream, reshape the river and reinstate important habitats for native aquatic insects and fish. Improved outcomes can occur when these artificial floods converge with natural flows and sediment delivery from unregulated tributary streams further down the valley. ;  (14 March 2022)

Study Dams alter river temperatures; endanger fish “Somebody can just plug in the size of a dam, and then they can know, ‘If my dam is this big and this wide and has this massive capacity, it will cause thermal change of this much range,’” Ahmad said. “This is where our study maybe comes in really handy.” The team designed the machine learning model as a publicly available tool so people can model the effect of their future dams on river temperature. (9 Feb. 2022)

Bhim Singh Rawat (

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