India’s Community Fish Sanctuaries Protect Wild Fish and Rivers

Parineeta Dandekar
Thursday, December 8, 2011

Waitarna Fish Sanctuary.
Waitarna Fish Sanctuary.
Parineeta Dandekar

As elsewhere around the globe, native freshwater fish diversity in India’s rivers is declining rapidly. About a third of the approximately 650 fish species found in India are threatened. Crucial reasons for this decline are destruction of habitats through dams and barrages, pollution, and exploitive fishing practices.

Dams in India have converted flowing rivers into reservoirs, which have a profoundly different hydrological character than rivers to which indigenous species have adapted to. Species like Indian Shad (Hilsa hilsa), carp (Labeo calabasu) and catfish (Bagarius bagarius) have been severely affected by these changes. Rivers and reservoirs are now dominated by exotic fish like Tilapia, silver carps, grass carps, and African catfishes, which tolerate high pollution and static water levels.

A flowing river provides numerous habitats for a variety of fish. Different fish species are found in niches like riffles, runs, deep pools, riparian stretches, floodplains, and estuaries.  Fish require flood pulses and drought signals as spawning cues. Temperature and light penetration are also important factors for their sustenance. Dams and barrages change all of these factors. Adding insult to injury for native fish, dams are stocked with exotic species by the Irrigation and Fisheries Departments. These fish compete with the local fish species. Only external fishing contractors benefit from the process.

A positive light in this dark picture are some gems of community conservation which protect not only rare native fish species, but entire riverine habitats through simple, participatory measures. Today, these community conserved fish sanctuaries are some of the very few places where we can see native fish and undisturbed river stretches. Most of these are temple sanctuaries, and have been managed for centuries by devotees of riparian temples. These small temple sanctuaries are nestled along river banks in many states of India. More than 35 have been documented, and new sanctuaries are being set up by local communities. There is an urgent need to conserve these important bastions of biodiversity from the impacts of new upstream dams and pollution.

A snapshot of some of these sanctuaries:

Shringeri Fish Sanctuary (Tunga River, Karnataka) was established nearly 1200 years ago. This sanctuary teems with endangered Sahyadri Mahseer fish, and supports nearly 38 fish species. Devotees offer puffed rice to huge schools of fish, and worship them as the ‘Meen avatar’ of Lord Vishnu. Catching these fish is supposed to be a crime. Significantly, no modifications have been made on the river banks by the temple authorities, so that the natural river morphology is maintained. The area receives no formal protection.

Chippalgudde Matsya Dhama (Tunga River,Teerthahalli) hidden in a tangle of Western Ghat forests, protects 4 kms of the Tunga River. Temple authorities and riparian communities manage the stretch. The tiny stretch protects more than 27 species of fish; significant species include the endangered Mahseer and Puntius pulchellus, the only indigenous herbivorous fish in India. The place receives no formal protection.

Shishisla Matsya Teertha (Kapila/Kumardhara  River, Dakshin Kannada) was declared a protected area in 1930. This sanctuary supports more than 18 fish species. In 1996, the river stretch was accidentally poisoned with pesticides and all fish in the sanctuary died. This gave rise to Matsya Hitharakshan Vedike, an informal organization that looks after the protection and management of fish. The villagers were shaken by the death of their sacred fish and built a fish memorial to commemorate them. Since then, fish populations have been rising.

Temple fish sanctuaries are found all over the country. This author recently recorded a fish sanctuary on River Waitarna in Western India, which is sandwiched between two dams and is experiencing severe hydrological stress. A number of river bank temples in India had thriving fish sanctuaries a few decades back, but have been impacted by reductions in the quality and quantity of water. Such is the fate of our rivers today.

Management of Fish Sanctuaries

Temple fish sanctuaries are not the only answer to protecting dwindling fish diversity. The reasons for decline of fishes (like dams or pollution) are too often outside the control of the managers of the fish sanctuaries. However, these areas are an important tool in conserving fish species and riverine stretches, and should receive official protection. Their potential to link communities in a strong river basin network should be recognized. Existing dams should be required to allocate environmental flows to protect these sanctuaries.

Protecting these areas will not only aid fish but can act as a bridge in protecting important free-flowing riverine stretches. We have very few pristine river stretches and native fish left and it is our responsibility to protect these for the world around us and our future generations.