When the night’s darkness descends over the waters of Son Beel, the largest wetland in Assam and the second largest in Asia, Rotish Das, 33, sets out to catch fish in his boat. He fishes in the placid expanse of Son Beel through the night and sells his catch the next day, at a bustling fish market – the Kalibari bazaar, a few kilometres away.

The catch that once earned him Rs 500 a day, has now dwindled in volume drastically. The declined stock of carps, prawns and catfish draws him a little more than Rs 150 daily, which is not enough to go around the year.

“Earlier I would catch the same quantity of fish both during the day and the night,” said Rotish, the resident of Bagantilla, a village on the southern bank of Son Beel. “Casting a fishing net weighing about 10 kg does not guarantee a decent-sized catch, whereas a 5 kg net would suffice before. Fishes like Ilish (Hilsa) and Chapila (Indian river shad) are not available anymore.”

The wetland is spread over more than 3,000 hectares in Assam’s Barak valley and is fed mostly by the Singla river, originating from the hills of Mizoram. The northernmost part of the wetland drains through the outlet Kachua into the river Kushiara in Bangladesh, after traversing a length of 19.3 km. A dam constructed in 1954 on Kachua was replaced by a lock gate to enable navigation and migration of fish. Home to at least 69 different species of fish, the veritable paradise supports rich birds as well as other vegetation in the region.

Dwindling incomes

Joykumar Das, another fisherman, from Saija Nagar, a village on the eastern bank of the wetland, resonates a similar loss. His monthly income from fisheries would earlier earn him Rs 10,000-Rs 12,000 each month.

Now, the income has dwindled with the business he refers to as “netting” or raking large unsparing synthetic nets over the wetland’s waters. These fishing gears are banned by the government and their use could get him and his fellow fishermen, in trouble with the authorities, according to Sahidul Islam Laskar, a civil rights activist based in Barak valley. However, Joykumar barely gets by with his small catch totalling a daily income of Rs 300 or less, which amounts to Rs 6,000 or Rs 7,000 in a month.

With Son Beel shrinking, fishermen like Joykumar Das have lower fish catch and their income has been dwindling. Photo credit: Joykumar Das

Key issues

For hundreds of years now, the lifestyle of these fishermen has been shaped by the lifecycle of the wetland – brimming with water during the rainy seasons and drying up during winter. They practised fishing when the wetland had water and cultivated buro, the local paddy, when water was scarce. The fishermen belong to the Kaibarta community who migrated to Assam’s Barak Valley from Bangladesh after the Partition, settling in villages on the banks of Son Beel.

There are over 30,000 Kaibarta families solely dependent on the wetland for their livelihood. Most of them are masterful boatmen and fishermen, who started engaging in agriculture only later. But a shortage of rainfall for over four years, has minimised the wetland’s water supply. Rotish recounts how at one time water would overflow the paddy fields during the harvest season. Now, rains are delayed by two months, he said.

“Owing to the change in rain patterns, the water requirement for the aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems for which wetlands act as a medium, is not met,” explained Jayaditya Purkayastha, a leading herpetologist based in Guwahati, Assam. “This leads to them slipping away.”

A 2012 study showed a reduction of 31.58% of the total annual rainfall between 2004 and 2008 in the Barak Valley region. As climate change and anthropogenic activities threaten the wetland, fish productivity remains a distant memory for the fisherfolk. The upstream migration of Hilsa from the downstream rivers of Bangladesh, has stopped altogether.

The effects have been devastating for Rotish and Joykumar, who rely on rice distributed as ration instead of their homegrown paddy. Rotish observes a 70% decrease in his paddy production, which he blames on the excess silt accumulated in the wetland. Lamenting at the loss of food security, he comments, “We would pride in feeding our guests fish from the beel and paddy from our fields. Now, that is impossible.”

In Son Beel, overfishing, upstream pollution and agricultural encroachment, are destroying the sanctity of the diverse ecosystem. Local fishermen use gigantic gill nets with small holes –locally referred to as mahajaal, to that drag the bed of the wetland, entrapping young fishes and eggs, apart from the usual catch.

“Unlike the traditional fishing nets, these mosquito-net lookalikes trap more life than they are supposed to do,” said Anwaruddin Choudhury, an ornithologist and a former bureaucrat. These substandard fishing methods stress fish populations, which are a critical source of food for the nearly 150 bird species thriving in the region, as documented by Anwaruddin. Among the many birds, he marked during his sightings in Son Beel, are the openbill stork, the lesser adjutant stork, the golden plover, the whiskered tern, the great cormorant, the Indian cormorant, the common cormorant, the Brahminy kite, and the black redstart. However, most of these birds have shrunk in numbers, either due to poaching or habitat destruction and are rarely spotted now.

“Encroachment is taking place on the small islands in Son Beel dotted with hijol trees (Barringtonia acutangula) that serve as habitats for migratory birds,” said Manabendra Dutta Choudhury, a professor at the Department of Life Science and Bioinformatics, Assam University, Silchar. “These trees standing in water are being felled sizably.”

“The beel largely occupied by the government and shared by the fisherfolk, is losing swathes of wetland to buro crop cultivation,” he elaborates. “Bundhs are created for capture fishing whenever the beel is found untouched.”

Hijol trees that serve as habitats for migratory birds in Son Beel are being felled. Photo credit: Rahul Choudhury

The increasing deforestation around the hills through which the river Singla, Son Beel’s primary inlet flows has choked the wetland with silt, leading to eutrophication, significantly reducing the size of the wetland, added Manabendra.

As a result, the wetland is slowly disappearing. A study from 2014 on fish diversity in the Barak Valley, captured a Geographical Information System mapping of the water area. A total of 3,593.6 hectares shrunk over a span of 100 years, from 1880 to 1980.

Wetlands have been known to conserve tons of carbon every year through their stored biomass, in soil and land, apart from acting as buffers absorbing silt/nutrients during floods. “Wiping them out, transforms them from carbon sinks to emitters of carbon”, pointed out Purkayastha.

Conservation challenges

There are many hurdles to conserving Son Beel as a wetland, right from drumming up funds and political will, to changing the unsustainable fishing methods. “Due to limited manpower resources, the concerned authorities are unable to enforce their mandates, such as stopping illegal fishing and spreading awareness”, said Laskar.

Some experts say they believe that declaring the wetland as a Ramsar Site of Wetlands of International Importance, is imperative for its conservation. Researchers Moharana Choudhury of Voice of Environment, a non-profit working on environmental protection, and Deepak Kumar of the United Nations Development Programme, estimated the monetary value of Son Beel from a minimum of $88 (6,530 rupees approximately) per hectare per year to a maximum of $29,716 per hectare per year in their study Valuation of Ecosystem Services and Benefits of Son Beel Wetland in Assam, India conducted from 2016 to 2018-’19.

“The study looked into the economy of aquatic resources, fisheries, net making and eco-tourism necessary to improve the socio-economic conditions of the marginalised, thriving on the peripheries of the wetland,” Choudhury explained.

Paddy cultivation in Son Beel is viewed as an encroachment. Photo credit: Saanku Das

Others question if a simple designation would solve the issues of the wetland conservation. “The situation of wetlands such as Deepor Beel in Assam, remains grim, even after the declaration as a Ramsar site,” Purkayastha said. “Unless the stakeholders, especially the fisherfolk are convinced about saving the wetland by fishing sustainably, instead of indulging in lucrative profits, and the government introduces better policies, the conservation will remain a distant dream.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.