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THE MAHSEER

The Mahseer was first described as a species by Hamilton in 1822. It belongs to the genus Tor, of which there are several subspecies to be found in India. Apart from the Indian sub-continent, Mahseer are found in other range countries in South Asia as well. There are issues regarding the taxonomy of the Mahseer and despite advances in molecular biology and tools for DNA analysis, scientists are not entirely in agreement as to how many sub species exist.

The Mahseer is a large cyprinid (belonging to the carp family) and is recognized by its large scales numbering 25 to 28 along the lateral line with two pairs of barbels. Males are identified by their long pectoral fins and have been known to reach a length of 2.7 m and weigh well over 100 lbs (though these sizes are rarely seen nowadays). The species is migratory; moving upstream during rains. It prefers clean, fast flowing and well oxygenated waters and has a much lower fecundity rate (lays less eggs per kg of body weight) than most carps. It requires gravel /sandy stream beds to breed and can migrate considerable distances in search of suitable breeding grounds. Females mature when they are 30cm in length while the males mature at 25cm. Courtship is a long process where males get attracted to a spawning female, whom they pursue vigorously. When the female finds a suitable place to lay her eggs, the males swim around her and fertilize the orange colored eggs. April to September is normally the spawning period but younger fish are known to spawn earlier. Mahseer are omnivorous. They have voracious appetites and their diet includes a wide range of algae, crustaceans, insects, frogs, other fish and also fruits that fall from trees etc. They also readily take a wide range of natural and artificial lures.

Apart from its cultural and religious significance (Mahseer are protected in ‘temple sanctuaries’ across India) these fish are a sportsman’s delight. They are very agile and strong, making them among the hardest fighting fresh water sport fish in the sub-continent. Hence recreational angling can generate considerable revenue for Mahseer conservation. The presence of Mahseer is an indicator of a healthy riverine eco- system and hence important as a flagship species. In Karnataka the locals refer to the Mahseer as ‘Bili Meenu’.

Indian Mahseer

The following sub species of Mahseer are generally recognized by scientists in India: (*Note:There is ongoing refinement around sub species classification under the "Tor" genus and this list is not final)

  • "Golden Mahseer" or Tor Putitora  found in the Himalayan streams and rivers.
  • "Blue Fin / Deccan Mahseer" or Tor Khudree  first described by Sykes from the Mota Mola river east of Pune. This species is also found in other rivers of the Deccan Plateau.
  • "Red Finned Mahseer" or Tor Tor found in the rivers of central India.
  • "Chocolate Mahseer" found in the Indian Himalayan & Peninsular region.
  • "Malabar Mahseer" or Tor Malabaricus found in the Western Ghats
  •  "Orange Fin / Humpback Mahseer” found in the Cauvery River and its tributaries. This species has yet to be given a scientific name and was earlier referred to as Tor Mussalah, a name not accepted by several taxonomists. Recent research findings reveal that this species (the largest of the Tor capable of attaining a weigh of well over 100 lbs /45 kg) could be “critically endangered” although it does not yet feature on the IUCN Red List. This species could qualify to be described as “mega fauna” by IUCN and is in desperate need for conservation and management of its stock.

The following additional species are also under consideration by scientists: TOR CHELYNDIDES, TOR KULKARNI, TOR PROGENIUS, TOR MOSAL etc.

Decline in Mahseer Populations

Mahseer populations have been declining in Indian rivers and morphology changes are observed as a result of several causative factors. These are (and not limited to) the following:

  • Habitat degradation
  • Lower flow rates of water through these habitats
  • Construction of dams obstructing fish migration
  • Water abstraction for human use
  • Pollution of rivers and streams from agricultural and industrial activity
  • Illegal and unsustainable fishing for human consumption
  • A lack of educating the local community who indulge in illegal / unsustainable commercial fishing
  • Laxity in the implementation of the Laws governing illegal fishing. Violators get away with impunity.
  • Absence of the larger conservation community’s involvement in Mahseer conservation, as the focus is on visible terrestrial species and not on the unseen underwater species.

Our Catch and Release programme

To most non-anglers, angling is just a hobby and they do not make an intuitive connection between angling and conservation.  Indeed, they express surprise when first introduced to the term “catch and release”. As the term suggests, this is a process whereby the fish is caught, brought to the surface and then released immediately. Either within the water or after a quick process of taking a photograph, measuring and releasing it within strict guidelines to minimize stress to the fish. There are now plenty of studies that measure the effects of catch and release angling and it has been found that robust species such as Mahseer suffer low side effects and indicate survival rates over 97%+ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catch_and_release). Also, species such as the Mahseer have a bony lip and our members are now required to use barbless hooks that release quickly from the fish. With good fish handling practices, anglers can now enjoy their angling and also treasure the moment when the fish with one big swing of its tail, slips out of the support provided by the anglers wet palms.

Recreational “catch and release” angling can serve as a valuable conservation tool as anglers are constantly monitoring both the health and morphology of the fish as well as the ecosystem that it thrives in. More importantly, revenue generated from angling can be ploughed back into conservation and forms a source of revenue for local communities, who can then be co-opted into conservation efforts. Particularly harmful poaching methods such as small gill netting and indiscriminate dynamiting can be curtailed. The net effect on the species has been found to be highly beneficial. This model was pioneered in India by organizations such as WASI and the survival of the Mahseer in large stretches of the Cauvery River, despite severe anthropogenic pressures, is proof that the model works effectively. This model is now being replicated in various states and many of their watchers and ghillies have been professionally trained by WASI.

The model has its critics but WASI has in turn worked with fish scientists of International repute, who have captured Mahseer in the Cauvery River and conducted a Rapid Assessment Study. A further detailed study with a larger sample size was conducted at the WASI lake by two scientists from Carlton University, Canada. They simulated several situations wherein an angler catches and then releases the fish, including multiple capture and air exposure. The scientific paper is still to be published, but the initial findings reaffirmed the findings of the Rapid Assessment Study done earlier. That the Mahseer is a robust fish that is not unduly affected by angling. In fact, the same released fish has even been known to turn back and strike at a lure within minutes of being released. (*see attached report)

To minimize stress to the fish released post capture by anglers, the following protocol is defined:

  • Minimise fight time by using sturdy fishing gear
  • Do not fight the fish to exhaustion
  • Keep the fish in the water (in a landing net) till it recovers
  • Measure, weigh and photograph the fish in the shortest possible time
  • Do not drop the fish on hard ground
  • Avoid thermal shock by releasing the fish in cool water. Support the fish till it is strong enough to swim away on its own.

In the end, we truly believe that an anglers’ commitment to the well being of the fish they capture is the bedrock of any “catch & release” program.

 

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