As Asia’s second largest wetland shrinks, Assam fishermen see uncertain future

When night darkness descends on the waters of Son Beel, Assam’s largest wetland and Asia’s second largest, Rotish Das, 33, sets out to fish from his boat. He fishes the peaceful expanse of Son Beel all night and sells his catch the next day at a bustling fish market – the Kalibari Bazaar, a few kilometers away.

The catches which once brought him 500 rupees a day have now shrunk considerably in size. The declined stock of carp, shrimp and catfish draws a little over Rs 150 per day, which is not enough to go around the year.

“Earlier, I caught the same amount of fish day and night,” said Rotish, a resident of Bagantilla, a village on the south shore of Son Beel. “Throwing a fishing net of about 10 kg does not guarantee a decent sized catch, whereas a 5 kg net would be sufficient before. Fish like Ilish (Hilsa) and Chapila (Indian River Shad) are no longer available.

The wetland covers over 3,000 hectares in the Barak Valley in Assam and is mainly fed by the Singla River, which originates from the Mizoram Hills. The northernmost part of the wetland drains through the Kachua outlet into the Kushiara River in Bangladesh, having traveled a length of 19.3 km. A dam built in 1954 on Kachua was replaced by a lock gate to allow navigation and fish migration. Home to at least 69 different species of fish, the true paradise is home to rich birds and other plants from the region.

Decreased income

Joykumar Das, another fisherman, from Saija Nagar, a village on the eastern shore of the wetland, echoes a similar loss. Her monthly income from fishing would previously bring her Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000 per month.

Today, income has declined with the activity he calls “net making” or raking large, ruthless synthetic nets on the wetland waters. These fishing gears are banned by the government and their use could put him and his fellow fishermen in trouble with the authorities, according to Sahidul Islam Laskar, a civil rights activist based in the Barak Valley. However, Joykumar barely manages with his small catch totaling a daily income of Rs 300 or less, which works out to Rs 6,000 or Rs 7,000 in a month.

With the decrease in Son Beel, fishermen like Joykumar Das have less fish catches and their income has decreased. Photo credit: Joykumar Das

Key questions

For hundreds of years now, the way of life of these fishermen has been shaped by the life cycle of the wetland – overflowing with water in the rainy season and drying out in the winter. They practiced fishing when the wetland had water and cultivated buro, the local rice field, when water was scarce. The fishermen belong to the Kaibarta community who migrated to the Barak Valley in Assam from Bangladesh after partition, settling in villages on the banks of Son Beel.

There are over 30,000 Kaibarta families who depend solely on the wetland for their livelihood. Most of them are master boatmen and fishermen, who only started farming later. But a lack of rainfall for more than four years has minimized the water supply to the wetland. Rotish says that at one point, water overflowed the paddy fields during the harvest season. Now the rains are delayed for two months, he said.

“Due to the change in rainfall patterns, the water needs of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems for which wetlands serve as a habitat are not being met,” said Jayaditya Purkayastha, a leading herpetologist based in Guwahati, in the Assam. “This leads them to slip away.”

A 2012 study showed a 31.58% reduction in total annual precipitation between 2004 and 2008 in the Barak Valley region. As climate change and human activities threaten the wetland, fish productivity remains a distant memory for fishermen. Migration upstream of Hilsa from rivers downstream of Bangladesh has come to a complete stop.

The effects have been devastating for Rotish and Joykumar, who depend on rice distributed as a ration instead of their local rice. Rotish observes a 70% decrease in his paddy production, which he attributes to excess silt accumulated in the wetland. Lamenting the loss of food security, he comments: “We would be proud to feed our guests the beel fish and paddy from our fields. Now it is impossible.

In Son Beel, overfishing, upstream pollution and agricultural encroachment destroy the sanctity of the diverse ecosystem. Local fishermen use gigantic gillnets with small holes – locally called mahajaal, to drag the wetland bed, trapping young fish and eggs, outside of the usual catch.

“Unlike traditional fishing nets, these mosquito net look-alikes trap more life than they are supposed to,” said Anwaruddin Choudhury, ornithologist and former bureaucrat. These substandard fishing methods stress fish populations, which are a critical source of food for the nearly 150 species of birds that thrive in the region, as Anwaruddin documented. Among the many birds he has tagged during his sightings at Son Beel are the open-billed stork, the minor stork, the golden plover, the whiskered tern, the great cormorant, the Indian cormorant, the common cormorant, the brahmin kite and the black redstart. However, most of these birds have declined in numbers, either due to poaching or habitat destruction, and are rarely spotted now.

“The encroachment takes place on the small islands of Son Beel dotted with hijol trees (Barringtonia acutangula) that serve as habitats for migratory birds, ”said Manabendra Dutta Choudhury, professor in the Department of Life Sciences and Bioinformatics, University of Assam, Silchar. “These trees standing in the water are being cut down significantly.”

“The beel largely occupied by the government and shared by fishermen, is losing parts of wetlands to the benefit of the buro the culture of cultures, ”he explains. “Bundhs are created for capture fishing whenever the beel is found intact.”

Hijol trees that provide habitat for migrating birds in Son Beel are being cut down. Photo credit: Rahul Choudhury

Increasing deforestation around the hills through which the Singla River, the main tributary of Son Beel, has suffocated the wetland with silt, leading to eutrophication, significantly reducing the size of the wetland, Manabendra added.

As a result, the wetland slowly disappears. A 2014 study on the diversity of fish in the Barak valley, captured a mapping of the geographic information system of the water area. A total of 3,593.6 hectares declined over a 100-year period from 1880 to 1980.

Wetlands are known to conserve tons of carbon each year through their stored biomass, in soil and soil, in addition to acting as silt / nutrient absorbing buffers during flooding. “Clearing them, turns them from carbon sinks into carbon emitters,” Purkayastha pointed out.

The challenges of conservation

There are many obstacles to conserving Son Beel as a wetland, ranging from fundraising and political will to changing unsustainable fishing methods. “Due to limited human resources, the authorities concerned are unable to enforce their mandates, such as stopping illegal fishing and raising awareness,” Laskar said.

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

“The study looked at the economics of aquatic resources, fishing, netting and ecotourism needed to improve the socio-economic conditions of marginalized people who thrive on the outskirts of the wetland,” said explained Choudhury.

The cultivation of rice in Son Beel is considered to be an encroachment. Photo credit: Saanku Das

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

This article first appeared on Mongabay.

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