May 24 is World Fish Migration Day and British angler Steven Lockett talks of why the mahseer, a migratory fish found in abundance in Karnataka, and known as the Tiger of the River, has always fascinated people

Steven Lockett has been travelling regularly to India since 1999, with a great interest in the mighty mahseer fish. An angler, angling coach, and a music teacher, Steve is now the press officer of the Mahseer Trust. Based out of the UK, the Trust partners with conservation organisations and scientists in India, on mahseer biology and conservation. He was recently at an angling camp for children in Shivanasamudram teaching Indian children everything about fish — from how they breathe, what they eat, how to catch and release them, how not to harm them, and more. He’s also writing a novel set in Mudumalai about teak plantations, attitudes towards adivasis, and forest conservation. India is home to several migratory fish species like the mahseer, barramundi (Asian/Indian sea bass), Indo-Pacific tarpon, Indian shad, pearl spot, and snapper. But the interest in the mahseer dates back more than 100 years. Steve tells us why. Excerpts from an interview:

Why is there such a great interest in about the mahseer in the world community?

It goes back more than 100 years, probably way before that. During the colonial rule, a lot of Englishmen were recreational anglers in India. They discovered this fish which grows to incredible sizes. In England at that time, a big fish would be three kilos, while these fish grow to 35 to 40 kilos. And because these fish are in warm water, they fight incredibly hard. Even a fish of two kilos will fight harder than the biggest fish you can catch in the U.K. From that time, the interest started. The interest died down from the time of (Indian) Independence till 1979. In terms of international anglers, there was group called the Trans-world Fishing Team that came down from the U.K. to North India, then southern India, to see if the mahseer still existed. This is when the modern interest in mahseer started.

How did your personal interest in the fish come about? How did the Mahseer Trust and its mahseer conservation projects come about? Karnataka has already banned angling in protected forest areas…

I’ve been fishing for this fish for 15 years. I like all fish and I like small fish in particular. The Mahseer Trust was originally formed in 2008. But we didn’t want it to be just a load of Englishmen who want an excuse to come to India fishing for mahseer. We wanted scientists on board. So the Trust actually began but did nothing at all, until 2012, when the guys who set up the Trust got in touch with scientist Adrian C. Pinder from Bournemouth University who became Director of the Trust. Then he got me on board because I know the entire river stretches here; not just the campsites. I’ve been spending time everywhere from Talacauvery to Trichy. I laid down conditions for my involvement — it should not just be India — there are Mahseer everywhere from Afghanistan to China, Indonesia — all different species. But all are from a common family of Tor. The other condition was that we should immediately have someone from India working with us. Dr. Rajeev Raghavan from St. Albert’s college in Kochi joined us. For me personally, I like to catch Mahseer.

They are an easy fish to catch. I don’t believe they are particularly threatened at this moment in time. What is threatened is their habitat. We wanted the Trust to be involved in making connections between the various countries that hold Tor species and various stakeholders involved in their habitat. Previously they were only interested in the fish. I felt we should be interested in all the aquatic life, the river itself, and the forest around the river. We’re in contact with a variety of NGOs and government organisations, fisheries and forest department – we make them interact. The mahseer is known as the “Tiger of the River”. I want to save the freshwater crab, but no one’s interested. Mahseer are big, hard-fighting fish. So people are more interested. Sadly for most people what is going on beneath the surface of a lake or river, they can’t see so they don’t know. Fish are not cute or cuddly so they have quite a hard job.

What are the ongoing projects of the Trust?

We just finished two series of assessments and workshops. We had scientists from three continents working together in India to look at the river and the fish, particularly looking for the impact that angling has on the fish. We set up two camps – one in Coorg on the river Cauvery and the other was on the Ganges in Uttarakhand. We had three days of angling, catching as many Mahseer as we could.

In Coorg we caught 48 mahseer over three days and the scientists ran all sorts of tests on them. We took blood samples to check lactose and glucose levels. We checked how fast the fish recovered. We tried different methods of handling and holding the fish to see the effect. We reached some conclusions after what we call the RAMP – rapid assessment monitoring protocol. Then we went to Bannerghatta for two days of workshops. Jungle Lodges, Wildlife Association of South India (WASI), scientists, angling tour operators, fisheries joint director, herpetologist Romulus Whitaker (also a keen angler) also came along, and discussed how we should move forward — promoting the best practices possible to ensure the safety of the fish. But also bringing as many people as possible to the bank. Because this is the most effective way to deter poaching. Somebody throwing a stick of dynamite in the river might be doing something extremely destructive not only to fish but to the whole environment – it could be a rare thing. Somebody pouring a box of copper sulphate or bleach into the river is far more common. There will be some unlicensed operators catching a lot of fish to take to the market. All of these things could be deemed poachers. Nobody has a problem with someone taking one or two fish to feed their family. Or if they have a fishing licence to operate as a commercial fisherman they should be allowed to carry on. But in terms of stopping illegal fish taking, having anglers on the bank is by far the most effective method.

The perception that angling harms fish and is a harmful sport — is that still a perception that you need to battle?

Yes, there is of course. One perception we find quite widely in India is that when a fish is being caught, although we put it back, it will die. So one of the tests we did at WASI Lake – we had an underwater fish-holding pen. We wanted to test whether retaining fish would impair them in anyway. The main concern we would have is that if the fish are not fully recovered, they could become easy prey to otters, crocodiles, bigger mahseer. When we came to take the net out, the fish that had been in the net only ten minutes was the only one that stayed in the pen as we began to lift the sides of the pen, the others leapt up almost 30 centimetres to escape. They were extremely vigorous and raring to go. This clearly proved to me that the fish are completely healthy after. We also found that some fish have a lot of blood vessels around the mouth and when you catch them and put a hook into them, they can bleed a little bit. Some other species like the Carnatic Carp, which is the state fish of Karnataka, if they get cut, will continue to bleed for sometime. But with mahseer, this doesn’t seem to happen. A major part of their diet is fresh-water crabs. So their lips are almost immune to pain, if they have to crush the shell of a crab with their lips. The scientists we were working with, specially Steven Cooke from Carleton University in Canada, says fish with this kind of feeding habit don’t have blood vessels in their mouth. So a hook that goes in, comes back out quite easily. There’s very little damage. You get a single pinprick and it heals very quickly. When they took blood samples, they found mahseer’s blood clots really very quickly; probably because they are fast fish and live very often in rapids, they have to bounce off boulders, and are more immune to rough handing. The big problem is air exposure; if they are kept out too long, it impairs their chances of swimming away stronger. We recommend a maximum of 60 seconds.

Catch Them Young:

All India Game Fishing Association (AIGFA), Mahseer Trust and Mustad together will conduct awareness programmes on World Fish Migration Day at Mysore, Coorg, Chennai, Nagpur, Hyderabad, Kota, Delhi and Sikkim. The objective is to educate children on managing natural resources and to save fish from extinction. On May 24 and 25, there will be an angling camp near the KRS Dam, Karnataka. For details check http://aigfa.org.