Hailing from a fishing village in Manipur’s Loktak Lake, which has seen indigenous fish varieties flounder in recent decades, Tongbram Amarjit Singh’s dream project since his school days was to document and showcase the slowly fading traditional fishing practices of his community.

Mapping the decline in indigenous fish species, fish catch and the concurrent waning of traditional techniques of fishing through his grandparents’ and parents’ experiences, Singh was stirred to act to preserve and conserve a culture integral to the identity of his community.

Now Singh, 35, an English translator at the state Assembly, has given shape to his dreams, with the help of his family and community, in the form of the Loktak Folklore Museum, at the island village of Thanga in Loktak Lake.

Presenting an array of fishing gear – basketry items, traps, impalers, hooks, fishing rods, cotton and fabric twine and more, this private collection is dedicated exclusively to Loktak and its environment, said Singh, who belongs to the Thanga Tongbram Leikai locality.

“While growing up we used to see our parents and their parents bring in steady amounts of fish both for consumption and for sale,” Singh said. “Now due to growing population and environmental changes, the consumption and production is imbalanced. Indigenous species that form the mainstay of our diet are disappearing from the lake and so are the fishing tools.”

Tongbram Amarjit founded the Loktak Folklore Museum in 2016 to preserve the traditional fishing practices of his community. Photo credit: Kartik Chandramouli

To say fish (“nga” in Manipuri) is an important source of protein for the Manipuris is an understatement. About 90% of the people in the state are fish eaters. Anything from 1 cm to 100 cm has value. Swimming in stews from smoke-dried to fermented (“ngari”), fish is ubiquitous. Social functions and ceremonies also involve fish. In the “nga-thaba” wedding ritual, for example, a pair of “ngamu” or snakehead fish (Channa gachua) is let go in water, symbolising the newlyweds’ journey. They relish fish and consequently fishing gears are customised to suit this dietary staple.

“But in some decades, these tools may go out of fashion and documenting them is important for our cultural memory,” Singh said.

Loktak is northeast India’s largest freshwater body, a sub-basin of the Chindwin-Irrawaddy river of Myanmar and a Ramsar Wetlands of International Importance site. Of at least 200 species of indigenous fish in Manipur, Loktak harbours 38 of them, researchers said.

Loktak lake, a Ramsar Wetland site, hosts 38 indigenous fish species. Photo credit: Kartik Chandramouli

Scientists at Manipur University and Zoological Survey of India blame changes in the hydrology due to the construction of dams, blockage of migratory routes, drying up of wetlands from siltation, eutrophication and water quality deterioration, and overexploitation for declining indigenous fish diversity in the lake.

As many as 16 species of indigenous fish are believed to have become extinct due to the blocking of water by the Ithai barrage , according to Manipur Governor Najma Heptullah. Capture of indigenous fish for trafficking for their ornamental value and absence of ban periods also add to the mix of conservation challenges.

“There was nothing you could not get from the lake,” said Mashinga, a former member of the women’s social movement “Meira Paibi”, or women torch bearer, who sells waterchestnuts and fermented fish for a living. “What little you get now is in a poor quality and quantity. There isn’t any pengba [Osteobrama belangeri] in the water.”

Off the menu

Pengba, a minor carp, is the state fish of Manipur and is reported to be “regionally extinct in the wild” due to obstruction of its migratory route from Myanmar on account of the Ithai barrage constructed three decades ago, said the Zoological Survey of India scientist Laishram Kosygin.

It is now mainly sourced from fish farms and is a prized delicacy both for its protein as well as for the price it fetches. In festive seasons, it can sell for as much as Rs 800 per kg.

“During our grandparents’ and our parents’ time they did fishing in more traditional ways,” said Singh, in the presence of his parents and siblings who have branched out into different professions. “Now it takes a lot more effort to catch a about a kilogram of fish through traditional gears in contrast to the period before the barrage. The effort does not translate in economic gains.”

They still fish but the condition of the Loktak Lake has rendered traditional fishery techniques economically infeasible, said Singh and members of his community.

Kosygin observed that before the 1950s, the lake, a breeding ground of indigenous fish, contributed 60% of the total fish production of the state of which migratory fish from Chindwin-Irrawaddy system formed 40% of the capture fisheries. In 2004, the lake was reported to fetch the state only about 11% of the fish.

Traditional fishing techniques don’t give enough yield. So, people are using exploitative and illegal fishing techniques such as poisoning and LED illumination. Photo credit: Kartik Chandramouli

Fish diversity and yield plummeted in the last two to three decades, Kosygin said, following construction of the Ithai barrage across the Manipur River. According to Amarjit Singh, the constant high water level in the lake for the functioning of the dam destroyed the breeding habitats.

“Fish prefer shallow areas for breeding,” Singh said. “In addition, the run-off from chemical fertilisers used in agriculture also directly affects the biodiversity of the lake.”

Before the construction of the barrage, minor carps such as Labeo angara, Labeo bata, Labeo dero besides Pengba used to migrate from Chindwin-Irrawaddy river system of Myanmar to Manipur River and Loktak Lake upstream for breeding and spawning, said Kosygin.

“Their fingerlings migrated downstream with the onset of monsoon,” Kosygin said. “Construction of hydraulic structures, particularly, the Ithai barrage blocked the migratory pathways of these riverine fish species. These fishes have already disappeared from the lake ecosystem.”

The Ithai barrage has resulted in permanent flooding of the lake and blocked the migration routes of various fish species, hindering their life cycles. Photo credit: Rajiv Kangabam

In addition, as pollution poisoned the lake, it became tough for the native species to survive.

However, hardy Indian Major Carps such as rohu, catla and exotic species such as grass carp, which were introduced into the lake, were able to thrive.

“The fishery department of Manipur introduced Indian Major Carps along with common carps in the Loktak Lake in the 1960s,” Kosygin added. “Although, there is no report on the formal introduction of exotic fish like Ctenopharyngodon idella, Hypophthalmicthys molitrix, Oreochromis mossambica in the Loktak Lake, they entered the lake through peripheral fish culture farms.”

Veteran researcher Waikhom Vishwanath of Manipur University noted that the introduced fish varieties are also prolific breeders, expanding their population significantly while the population of native fish was not able to compete with the new arrivals.

“Such is the condition that native species are fighting a losing battle in their own habitat, and now the lake is dominated by the exotic carps,” Kosygin lamented.

Credit: Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay

Hope floats in the hills

Manipur consumes around 52,000 metric tonnes of fish a year and produces 32,000 metric tonnes. To bridge the supply demand gap, Manipur depends on fish brought in from other states of India.

“As the native fish declined in numbers, traditional traps became obsolete,” said Amarjit Singh. “To ensure adequate catch, fisherfolk resorted to unscientific methods such chemical poisoning and LED illumination.”

LED illumination messes up the lifecycle of fish. The time required for their resting and feeding, changes, said Waikhom. “It really disturbs their day-night cycle, they mature early in more light and the eggs they bear will be less in numbers,” he added. “So if you want to revive those old techniques then there should be proper water level and it should be replenished by the freshwater from rivers during the rainy season, then water quality will improve and population of native fish will also go up but that is not happening.”

In 2011, the International Union for Conservation of Nature listed 15 fish species from eastern Himalayas, including seven from Manipur as “endangered freshwater fish species”.

Indigenous fish species that formed an important part of the diet and cultural practices of Manipur's people have dwindled. Photo credit: Kartik Chandramouli

However, there is hope, believe Waikhom and fellow Manipur University researcher Rameshwori Devi. “There are more than 200 indigenous varieties and we are updating the list with discovery of new species,” Waikhom said. “We are also looking at hill streams. More of the indigenous species are adapted to hill streams so even if Loktak Lake is deteriorating due to pollution and water flow changes, in hill streams they are present.”

The researchers have urged the state government to work for the exploration of indigenous varieties, their conservation and, if possible, exploitation in a sustainable manner using laboratory breeding techniques.

“There is legislation on paper, the Manipur Fisheries Act of 1988, but to implement them in hill areas is difficult,” Waikhom said. “Some villages are much aware of the problem of loss of diversity and they have started certain restrictions in fishing in collaboration with NGOs.”

On the agenda is conservation of habitats. “There are few species that will survive and breed only in pebbles and sands,” he said. “But sands are being mined out for construction and their feeding and breeding habitats are being destroyed. So there needs to be restriction to preserve these breeding grounds.”

Since most of the food fish are also ornamental in nature, Rameshori stressed on the necessity to clamp down on trafficking.

“Most of the food fish in their juvenile stages have ornamental value. The Chocolate Mahseer [Neolissochilus hexagonolepis] and our state fish, for example, are quite popular aquarium fish,” she said. “The problem begins when people capture them from wild. Captive breeding can be sustainably used. DNA barcoding can help in identification and control of trafficking.”

Fish production from Loktak lake dropped drastically since the 1950s and numerous native fish species have either gone extinct or have become endangered. Photo credit: Kartik Chandramouli

However, Mashinga has different concerns. “Youth are no longer interested in traditional vocations, they have aspirations and environmental changes have driven them to pursue different fields. Who will look after our water bodies,” she lamented as she laid out fermented fish for potential customers.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.