It’s hard to miss the many signboards that offer a scrumptious meal of fresh trout, the moment one enters the Kullu Valley of Himachal Pradesh. And if you do choose to tuck into one, there’s a handful of enterprising Brits that need to be thanked for their efforts from over a century ago.
Naturalised now, the trout isn’t indigenous to Indian rivers, and in his book A Fish in Alien Streams, journalist Herjinder narrates the story of how the fish made its way from distant shores to eventually land up on your plate today.
The account dates back to the middle of the 19th century, when the British government had taken over from the East India Company and firmly established itself in the Indian subcontinent. Far from home, the officials looked to make themselves comfortable in this new land.
Among their various pastimes was the sport of angling, while unwinding in the cool climes of the many hill towns that they retired to during the summers. The rivers that flowed through these regions offered plenty of game such as the mahseer and other indigenous fish. But there was a common consensus among enthusiasts that these options didn’t offer the same fight that had been experienced with the trout and salmon back home. And so, a few enterprising Englishmen began work to introduce trout, primarily the feisty brown trout, in Indian waters.
The first few attempts were made by Dr Francis Day, considered the father of Indian ichthyology, to introduce trout around the hills of Ooty. The key was to ensure that the ova remained in good health over the weeks that it would take to reach its destination. The entire process was tedious to say the least, right from sourcing the trout eggs to packing them in boxes that had to be continually refrigerated. They had to survive a long journey—first by ship, then road or train, and in a few places, carried on foot across unmotorable patches at altitude. Inclement weather, local fishermen and predators were just some of the other challenges that they faced once introduced in the local rivers and streams.
The first batch arrived as early as 1866, but setbacks such as these meant that it wasn’t until a few decades later that there was some progress made in Kashmir and Kullu in the north and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Travancore (now Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala) in the south. Hatcheries and stock ponds were strategically created after studying the feasibility of breeding trout and releasing them in nearby waters. Soon, fish of different sizes were reported across various regions and newly formed angling clubs started generating modest revenues. Once the trout population started flourishing, the fish was introduced in Gilgit and Abbottabad (now in Pakistan) and parts of Uttarakhand and Shillong.
All efforts to introduce trout were for recreational purposes. While there were studies conducted to understand if it could survive Indian waters, there was no attempt made to analyse its impact on other species and local fauna, a point the author brings up towards the end of the book. Most of the book is dedicated to the fascinating journey of the trout, making for an intriguing read for all audiences, but very little time is spent on the aspects of conservation, the commercial potential of the nascent trout farming industry, and the effect on the environment.
Post independence, stocking of rivers with trout reduced. There were a number of reasons: Angling was best enjoyed by the British; the priorities for a newly independent nation were vastly different. The building of dams, the development of infrastructure along the banks of rivers and environmental degradation further disturbed the life cycle of the trout.
Today, a handful of angling sites across India that offer real game. The brown trout has practically disappeared from rivers. Rainbow trout usually make it to dinner plates, thanks to the lucrative business of farming.
An assignment in 2009, the centenary year of the introduction of trout in Himachal Pradesh, gave Herjinder his first glimpse of this world. He soon realised that he had just scratched the surface and decided to spend the next decade researching and writing a book on the introduction of an alien species of fish into India. He tracked down personal accounts, journals and handbooks of British officers and angling enthusiasts, an effort perhaps as laborious as that of the men who persevered to introduce the fish in India.