50 Years Of Empowering The Mahseer And Blue-Finned is out of the Red

New Delhi: The tiger of the jungle prowls in our imagination. Filling our senses with striped glory and rumbustious roars. Numerous tales have been penned and filmed on this wondrous creature.

But how many of us are familiar with an equally majestic tiger that bejewels the waters? A large, wondrous fish that gleams gold as it glides through dappled streams and rivers? How many of us are familiar with the Mahseer? The Mahseer is a fish that has a royal presence and impressive qualities. It belongs to a freshwater species that for many years has faced the threat of extinction in the wild.

At one time, this regal specimen used to thrive in the rapids of the Himalayan and Sahyadri ranges, besides other rivers and lakes across the country. Amidst raging white currents this playful fish would swim just below the surface, walloping the waters in glee, and glimmering in the soft sunlight. But soon this Mighty Mahseer, was being hunted because of its commanding size and rich looks. It became the target of fishermen and fishing companies. Out of 15 species of Mahseer in India, five faced the dire threat of extinction.

That was when Tata Power decided to step in, exactly fifty years ago. Just in the nick of time. For a fish that was literally feeling out of water!

How Tata Power came into the picture

There is quite a quaint story as to how Tata Power wholeheartedly got immersed in Mahseer conservation. Apparently, the locals living in the villages in rural Maharashtra would worship the Mahseer as a god-fish because it sports a barble above its mouth that resembles a ‘nathini’ worn by a woman. These locals began noticing the dwindling of the Mahseer and then to their dismay, its absolute disappearance. Not knowing whom to turn to, they approached the Fisheries Department for help. The Department in turn enlisted Tata Power for support, since it had its plant in the area and was seen as a corporate that could make a difference.

And thus started Tata Power’s saga with the Mahseer. Exactly half a century ago.

The company began by conducting in-depth studies and researches. It was discovered that rampant discharge of industrial wastes, indiscriminate fishing of even brood and juvenile

 

fish, deteriorating ecological conditions in spawning and rearing grounds, and use of explosives for mass killing of fish were some of the reasons for the Mahseer reaching dangerous extinction levels.

After carefully analysing and understanding the situation, a Mahseer Breeding Centre was set up in conjunction with the Central Institute of Fisheries Education near Tata Power’s Walwan Dam project at Lonavala, Maharashtra. Concentrating especially on the Blue-Finned and the top-of-the-pops Golden Mahseer. For the last 50 years, the Centre has offered unstinted support, ideas and innovation to increase the numbers of this precious species.

And today, on World Environment Day we are happy to announce that the Blue-Finned Mahseer has been taken off the IUCN red list

The Golden still remains on the list, but hopefully the day is not far off when this species of Mahseer too will no longer see red!

Why is the Mahseer so important for ecological balance?

This unique fish is very sensitive to dissolved oxygen levels, water temperature and sudden climatic changes. It just cannot bear pollution. So when we spew wastes into our rivers, we are not only sounding a death knell for the Mahseer, we are also losing an important indicator of freshwater ecosystems. So it cuts both ways.

Also, the current pandemic has taught us that by hunting animals and indiscriminate fishing we are destroying entire habitats and eco-systems. Thus making it easier for diseases to spread from one animal or bird or fish to another, and then spill over onto humans.

It follows then, that conserving the Mahseer, increasing its numbers, and getting it off the IUCN red list is even more important today than ever before. To stabilise our disturbed environment, to preserve our bio-diversity, and to ultimately save our very lives. The initiative that Tata Power began fifty years ago, now has an urgency to succeed like never before. If nothing else, we owe it to our children to make this world more ecologically balanced and disease free. And this can only happen by preserving crucial species like the Mahseer.

How Tata Power has empowered the Mahseer

Tata Power has developed an ingenious method to breed 4-5 lakh Mahseer hatchlings at a time at its Walvan Hatchery in Lonavala. The century old company has created a huge lake by damming the Indrayani River. It is here that the Blue-Finned and Golden species of Mahseer congregate, attracted by the sound of the highly oxygenated water in the lake.

The brooder fish (that are used to spawn hatchlings) are collected from here and introduced into ponds or lakes that have gushing water falling from heights to mimic the sounds of monsoon and waterfalls (since this stimulates the brooder’s reproductive process).

 

Experienced fishermen then strip the brooders of eggs and sperm in a delicate and expert operation. The eggs and sperm are then placed together in large breeding trays to fertilise. Here again, good eggs which are golden in colour are given pride of place.

Once the eggs are fertilised, (over the last 50 years there have been 15 million of them), the baby hatchlings emerge within 72-96 hours and search for dark places to hide. They seem a bit shy at first, but after a month the hatchlings (or fry, as they are called) are about a centimetre long and move around vigorously. And at the end of 4-6 months they are ready to be handed over to various fisheries departments across the country, who in turn introduce them into lakes and rivers in their states. This too is a very careful and well-coordinated effort between Tata Power and the Fisheries Departments and over the years has resulted in some 11.6 million hatchlings making their homes in waters all over India and growing into awe-inspiring specimens that can measure up to 9 feet long weigh up to 33 kilograms!

Phew! Quite a journey from the shy millimetre long hatchlings to the magnificent Mahseer that challenges Anglers from all across the world.

These big, smiling and sporting Mahseers wait for you to come and engage in playful contest with them. And when they’re not playing, they’re helping preserve the environment.

A very sporting fish

Now, imagine an experienced and passionate Angler who has travelled many miles, because he enjoys the sport. He parks himself on the banks of a river bustling with fresh, gushing water, and casts his line. After not too long a wait, he feels a tug. Gentle at first but soon it becomes more urgent, more demanding! A knowing smile plays across his tanned face. Aha! He is convinced now that a great sporting contest is about to begin.

The fish has been hooked, but in spite of great effort the Angler cannot bring it ashore. His determined pulling is met with a ferocious tugging by what definitely seems to be a very large fish, bearing down on the line with all its might. This tug-of-war goes on for a good half hour. Gasps of effort escape the Angler’s lips and sweat gradually begins streaming down his brow. But the sprightly fish is not willing to give in. The Angler digs his heels in. After all, this was the contest he had travelled a long distance for. And in spite of an even larger effort than he had anticipated, he is thoroughly enjoying himself.

Finally after a long struggle, the gallant fish tires and allows itself to be drawn in. The Angler lets out a cry of delight when the Mahseer ultimately emerges from the water. A truly large and outstanding specimen, the kind the experienced Angler had seldom seen. He holds the massive 6 foot long fish, and is barely able to hold his ground as the Mahseer struggles with bold, whipping strokes. After estimating the weight to be around 30 kilograms, the Angler gently unhooks the fish and lets it back into the gushing fresh water. The fish thrashes around for a moment, leaps energetically and then gracefully swims away with what appears to be an almost mischievous smirk on its face. As if to say, ‘Hey! You can’t hold a good fish down’.

 

This is just one among countless stories about why the Mahseer is an Angler’s delight. And why true-blue Anglers have since decades travelled many miles to engage in these skilful contests. Quite often, even from foreign lands. In fact Mr Sumant Moolgaokar, Chairman, Tata Motors, and Mr Maniktala, MD, Tata Electric, both keen Anglers themselves, realised the potential Mahseer tourism had for our country. That was perhaps one of the reasons the Tatas have supported Mahseer conservation with such consistent passion.

Making The Mahseer A Youth Icon

Tata Power has been conducting various activities for youngsters under their Club Enerji initiative. These include excursions that raise awareness about the gorgeous Mahseer. The idea is to encourage children to learn about an important aspect of their ecology, while also initiating the slightly older kids into enjoying the sport of fishing the Mahseer, and then letting it back into the water. Letting the fish back into the water also teaches them important lessons of life, of letting go, of not trying to possess more than is required, of maintaining a balance with nature, and making peace with it.

As part of their visits to the Walvan hatchery most children handle a live (and in fact live-wire) fish for the very first time. This is quite a transformative moment for them and some kids have been known to exclaim ‘why do we eat such a beautiful fish?’ When they realise that water pollution leads to a dwindling of the Mahseer, they start discussing ideas to keep the rivers pollution free. Children are very pure and innocent in their observation and many of them are known to visit their Mahseer friends again, after falling in love with this energetic fish.

50 years, but the work is far from over

The Mahseer numbers have been growing by leaps and bounds with every passing year. Unlike typical corporate practice, success in this venture is measured by literally going into the red, so that the Mahseer goes off the IUCN endangered list! Now what do we mean by that?

Our success in this long 50 year saga is best measured by the number of hatchlings we breed, (to be distributed all over the country). These have progressively started falling year on year instead of increasing. This means that the Mahseer population is growing organically. Rivers and lakes that were once bereft of the Mahseer are now teeming with them after hatchlings introduced from the Walvan hatchery have started breeding and increasing. Mahseer are also now being increasingly sighted at various points by avid Anglers. However the Golden Mahseer is still not off the red list and Tata Power will only believe its mission is accomplished when this is achieved.

Meet the Mahseer

All through this landmark 50th year of the Mahseer Project, Tata Power will be conducting various programs, organising excursions, as well as creating media and educational tools to bring this fab-fish closer to the minds and hearts of India.

 

These will include conferences, dialogues and talks by various experts on the subject, getting Anglers to share unique experiences, offering fun facts to familiarise the general public about the Mahseer through various media channels, launching cool Mahseer merchandise and stationery, sensitising school students through workshops and interactive sessions at the Hatchery, creating a lively fish mnemonic that the youth can identify with, as well as tying up with other renowned wildlife and conservation organisations to increase scope of awareness.

There will be plenty of opportunities and interesting ways offered to meet this great fish and discover a true friend that can teach us a lot about the endless river of life. And the pure bounties of nature.