ROME, 28 May 2002 -- On a dull,
damp day in the summer of 2001, a group of men stood beside a
dam on the Andhi Khola River in Nepal. They were not there to
admire the scenery, which was largely hidden by persistent
monsoon drizzle. Instead they were gazing at a row of small
concrete basins lining the riverbank, partly filled with water,
each one placed a little higher than the one before it.
Two of the men were inland-fisheries
experts from FAO, accompanied by a Nepalese colleague from the
inland-fisheries authority in Kathmandu. And they were looking
at a fish ladder -- a series of steps by which fish can
"climb" (in fact, leap) above the level of the
"People may need the
electricity and irrigation water dams provide, but they also
need the fish for food," says FAO's Felix Marttin,
a member of the group that day. "And, unless the fish
are Olympic pole vaulters, dams can stop them getting upriver to
spawn." The Hindu Kush-Himalayan region has a
population of more than 140 million, and protein can be scarce
in mountain areas. Fish such as the mahseer, much prized by game
fishermen, can also contribute to the diets of rural
communities, both in the mountains and in the plains downstream.
"Fish passes or ladders can help
solve the problem of obstructed migration routes. But such
measures must be designed with care," says Mr Marttin.
"The construction of the Andhi Khola fish ladder
required fish to jump half a metre -- too much for most fish. It
was a similar story at other dams."
This problem is not confined to Nepal, which has in
fact tried harder than many countries to integrate inland
fisheries with dams. Neither is it the only big issue in
So in 2001, FAO, the
Government of Nepal, the World Conservation Union (IUCN), the
Network of Aquaculture Centres in Asia Pacific, the World
Wildlife Fund and other bodies organized a Symposium on
Coldwater Fishes of the Trans-Himalayan Region in Kathmandu. It
brought together 70 participants from 10 countries in the region
and others outside it to decide what needs to be done.
The mighty mahseer
The region's fish are very diverse.
Nepal has 156 indigenous species, the Himalayan region of India
218, and Bhutan 41. The fish belong to several different
families, including snow trout (which is not a real trout) and
the brown trout (introduced in the last century and now numerous
in parts of the region).
One of the most
important indigenous fish is the mahseer, a member of the carp
family. It is versatile, surviving from just above sea level to
2 000 metres above. In 1987 the Mekong River in southeast Asia
was restocked with Indian mahseer to provide food for local
communities. They and other Himalayan species, such as the snow
trout, have also found their way to Papua New Guinea.
Restocking, if done with care, can provide a valuable new
protein source for hungry mountain communities within and
outside the region -- a good reason for maintaining diversity of
fish species -- but FAO counsels extreme caution on introducing
Fish face other threats
besides dams. Siltation caused by deforestation and soil erosion
affect some fish, including the mahseer. So do industrial
pollutants. Some "fishing" is wanton --
fishers kill fish with dynamite, and gravid (egg-laden) fish can
be picked off with spears and sticks as they struggle upstream
worked for some time on the floodplains of Bangladesh and
recalls: "Nobody was a full-time fisher, but everyone
fished. So it was hard to determine how heavily a fishery was
exploited, which is also the case in mountain rivers."
Lakes are easier to monitor, and he points
out that on Nepal's Lake Phewa, for example, fishers are
licensed through membership in associations. They help with
restocking, as do local Buddhist monks. Here too, however, there
is a need to assess stocks more carefully.
"It's clear that mountain fisheries need
integrated solutions," says Mr Marttin. "We
need both science and socioeconomics. Conservation must be
balanced with needs such as nutrition and hydropower. The
meeting in Kathmandu was a first step to find these
Among the measures the
symposium called for were:
information on fish stocks and exploitation
Assessment of steps already taken to manage
fisheries and reconcile their needs with those of other water
the role of fisheries in the region and how they might
contribute more to poverty alleviation
Promotion of local ownership and management
of fish resources, making restricted fishing seasons and
protected spawning grounds more realistic
Investigation of alternative livelihoods for
rural people if, as seems likely, some fisheries are already
"Nothing must be left out," says Mr
Marttin. "Fish passes are only one piece in a jigsaw.
But a jigsaw with a piece missing is not