Water, people and fish

Mark Everard in 2016 with a golden mahseer (Tor putitora) from the Western
Ramganga River, Uttarakhand state, India. (Image © Gaurav Kataria.)

In early April, I had the pleasure of representing IWSN and the University of the West of England at the Mahseer 2017 International Workshop on Mahseer Conservation in Cochin, Kerala state (India), supported by the Mahseer Trust and a variety of other organisations.

What is a mahseer and why is it germane to our water security interests? Mahseer are large, charismatic fishes of Asian rivers, with some species recorded up to 120lb (over 54kg) in weight. Across the geographical range of mahseer species – from India to Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Mekong basin countries, China and Indonesia – these fishes have significant cultural and spiritual, recreational, food and other importances. The name ‘mahseer’, with ‘mahaseer’ a more common spelling in India, is a ‘river tiger’ (‘seer’ is one of the Hindi words for ‘tiger’, whilst ‘maha’ is ‘great’). Like the tiger, mahseer are top predators mobile across a range of habits throughout their life cycles, so constitute a ‘flagship species’ indicating the vitality and connectivity of river systems, vital for water security.

This role of mahseer as indicators of healthy rivers supporting socio-economic wellbeing is very much prime in the mission statement of the Mahseer Trust: “Because rivers need fish and people need rivers”. There is growing awareness beyond the Trust and its partners that the ecosystem services provided by fishes and their rivers are of vital importance, also forming significant aspects of the rationale for conservation of this iconic group of fishes. But they are also threatened by multiple development pressures including damming, abstraction and water diversion, pollution, sand-mining, dynamiting and other unsustainable forms of fishing, and habitat simplification. The fate of mahseer and people are closely tied together, with healthy water systems a vital foundation for both.

My prior work on mahseer includes development with Indian partners of a Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) programme in a reach of the Western Ramganga river, Uttarakhand state (India), a tributary of the Ganga system. Under this PES scheme, local people are incentivised to hold back from destructive fishing techniques and to self-police the river and its wildlife in return for revenue from services to organised recreational angling. (See the paper: Everard, M. and Kataria, G. (2011). Recreational angling markets to advance the conservation of a reach of the Western Ramganga River. Aquatic Conservation, 21(1), pp.101–108).

Mark gives a keynote presentation at the Mahseer 2017 conference.
(Image © Dr Mark Everard)

My keynote presentation at the International Workshop on Mahseer Conservation was titled River ecosystems for mahseer and people; an outline of the workshop, its programme and a link to my presentation can be found on the Mahseer 2017 conference website. As ever, I took a ‘big picture’ approach, highlighting the importance of thinking in connected ways about win-win benefits across policy areas, highlighting my emerging work on connecting rural, urban and irrigation water demands and wildlife on the Banas River (Rajasthan State, India).

The Wetlands and Water synthesis report of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment highlights the rapid and pervasive declining trend in global freshwater ecosystems, far exceeding alarming trends in terrestial and marine systems, and with them loss of ecosystem services vital to human welbeing and security. It is vital that we reverse this trend, and take heed of mahseer populations and other regionally appropriate indicator species.