Time to focus on freshwater fish, is India listening?

October 25th, 2010 - 3:49 pm ICT by IANS  

By Joydeep Gupta
Nagoya (Japan), Oct 25 (IANS) Fishermen and policymakers alike are worried because many marine fisheries have lost 90 percent of their stocks. What is often forgotten is that inland freshwater fisheries are in crises too, highlights a new report that is of significance to India.

“This fascinating report has brought to the fore the often neglected subject of inland fisheries,” Achim Steiner, UN under-secretary and UNEP executive director, said.

“While marine fisheries are under increasing scrutiny, those based on river and lake systems rarely engage the international community - an oversight of potentially profound implications.”

“Why? Because an estimated 100 million people in Africa alone get important levels of daily protein from these inland sources alongside essential vitamins and minerals. Meanwhile, unofficial estimates put the global inland catch at close to 30 million tonnes, comparable to official marine catches, and employment at 60 million people - 13 million more than in equivalent marine fisheries,” he added.

In India, 5.5 million people are employed in freshwater fishing and related occupations. India, China, Bangladesh and Myanmar are the largest producers of freshwater fish with a total official harvest from inland fisheries of over five million tonnes a year.

The numbers are just as significant in most countries. These fisheries play a vital role in economies, livelihoods, health and human development.

The report on inland fisheries released on the sidelines of the Oct 18-29 UN biodiversity summit here says globally, rivers and lakes are providing 13 million tonnes of fish annually with the true figure perhaps as much as 30 million tonnes due to under reporting of catches.

These inland fisheries are generating 60 million full and part time jobs in fishing and other activities such as processing with over half these jobs carried out by women.

Close to 70 percent of the total inland catch is in Asia. Much of the fish is eaten within the country, underlining the critical importance to the people and economies of the developing world.

The new report, compiled by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Fish Centre, also highlights the wide ranging importance of inland fisheries in diet, and especially among children, above and beyond the supply of protein.

“Even more important in many countries (than protein) is the role of inland fisheries in supplying micronutrients, especially vitamin A, calcium, iron and zinc,” says the report Blue Harvest: Inland Fisheries as an Ecosystem Service.

“Detailed studies in Bangladesh for example have shown that daily consumption of small fish contributes 40 percent of the total daily household requirement of vitamin A and 31 percent of calcium,” adds the study.

As well as providing nutritional benefits, fish also play a key role in the functioning of aquatic ecosystems. Their consumption of plankton, plants, insects and other fish is critical to the stability and resilience of river and lake habitats.

Fish also serve as important links between ecosystems. The nutrients and organic matter from fish eggs, carcasses and excretion help to support the production of algae, insect larvae and other fish species in rivers and lakes.

When fish populations decline, there can be serious knock-on effects for other organisms. The report warns that despite over 40 years of steady production globally, rapid environmental changes are occurring which challenge the viability of future fish stocks.

As reasons, it cites low flows, changes in seasonal flooding patterns and loss of habitat and spawning grounds linked with dams, unsustainable agriculture and over-abstraction of water.

Other impacts are coming from urbanisation and road building, pollution including wastewater discharges and climate change. Pollution is also taking its toll.

The report urges countries to adopt an ‘ecosystem approach’ to managing inland fisheries given the multiple impacts coming to bear on their health and productivity.

New dams should be located where they have least impact on river ecosystems, and fish-friendly designs managed to allow fish migration and delivery of seasonal flows, the report says; where possible older dams need to be altered to provide similar benefits.

The study reports that the number of large dams greater than 15 metres in height has grown globally from 5,000 in 1949 to over 50,000 by 2006. Meanwhile, there are now also an estimated 800,000 smaller dams worldwide.

(Joydeep Gupta can be contacted at joydeepgupta1@gmail.com)

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