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 dam.

"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 mountain fisheries.

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 alien species.

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 to spawn.

Is mountain fishing sustainable?

Mr Marttin 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.

For thefuture

"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 solutions."

Among the measures the symposium called for were:

  • Better information on fish stocks and exploitation

  • Assessment of steps already taken to manage fisheries and reconcile their needs with those of other water users

  • Investigation of 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 fully exploited.

"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 complete."