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How a power company is bringing Mahseer back to Indian rivers

As Tata Power’s Act for Mahseer project completes 50 years, its project head shares some key milestones and challenges

The Mahseer fingerlings in Tata Power's Walvhan dam facility in Maharashtra. (Tata Power)

At first glance you would think it's an aqua farm, but the hatchery is part of an important conservation project for one of the largest river fish in the country. The Act for Mahseer project has played a crucial role in getting the Blue-Finned Mahseer (Tor Khudree), a sub species of Mahseer, out of the IUCN’s Red List recently. Situated in Lonavla's Walvhan dam facility, and run by Tata Power along with the Central Institute of Fisheries Education, the project completes 50 years of its existence this month. It's one of the oldest conservation efforts in India.

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Once found abundantly in the rapids of Indian rivers, the Mahseers or the tigers of the waters have been driven to extinction due to water pollution, over fishing and introduction of invasive species. The hatchery houses two of the 15 sub species of Mahseers found in India - Blue Finn Mahseer or Deccan Mahseer and Golden Mahseer, one of five sub species that’s still on the critically endangered list. Over the last five decades, the hatchery has managed sent consignments of 16.5 lakh Mahseer fingerlings (juveniles) to various states, fishery institutes, angling clubs and even exporting to Laos.

Observing the landmark year, Vivek Vishwasrao, head – biodiversity, Tata Power, who has led the project for the last 35 years, talks about the impact the project has achieved so far, the climatic changes affecting the fish, and what needs to be done to nurture these species in the wild.

What are the changes you have seen in the last 50 years?

We are proud to have contributed in helping increase the population of Deccan Mahseer. The fish from our hatcheries are surviving in the wild. In fact, we have seen the Mahseer population increase in our five lakes namely Walwhan, Shirwata, Thokerwadi, Mulshi and Kundli. During winter, when the water is clean and there is no wind, one can actually see Mahseer of 3.5 to 4 ft in length swimming around.

However, it’s a very sensitive fish. And over the years, we have observed the teh breeding period getting impacted due to the climate change. Earlier, the breeding season would start from end of June, now the breeding starts from end of July.

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The project is also looking at conservation of golden Mahseer. Why haven’t the numbers of this sub species grown?

However, we started the hatchery for golden Mahseer (which is found in north India) was started in 1995 - two and a half decades after the project started. Fortunately, it adapted to the climatic conditions here. It will take time but we are confident that we will be able to breed them from danger as well. Our annual target is to have 4-5 lakh fish based on the requests received by various state fisheries departments. Hopefully, this will reduce as the fish adapt in the wild.

According to you, what more needs to be done to repopulate this species in our rivers?

We need to protect and prepare natural breeding ground for the fish, only then will they survive in the wild. We must keep our rivers clean as the breeding season will vary depending on the running water and food material. We need more breeding places and we need to prevent people from disturbing the areas where the fish are likely to breed. For instance, in Velas, a coastal village in Maharashtra, the community protects the breeding ground of the turtles that lay the eggs on the beach, and ensure the area is undisturbed.

Heavy fishing and the equipped that are used are another major issue. Unlike traditional fishing nets, the new nylon nets have small openings, which scoops in juvenile fish as well. Since these don’t have a market value they let it die. This results in loss of several generations of the fish. So, we need to change our fishing practices.

The other aspect is encouraging community participation in the conservation efforts. A few years ago, I recall, an angler has caught a Mahseer. His local guide, however, requested him to let the fish go as it was a female. A female Mahseer can produce 10-15000 eggs. That’s the level of sensitivity we need to bring within the community; that’s the only way this project has sustained for this long.

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