Every day for about ten days, a group of us rafted for eight hours down the river. As we drifted down calm stretches, we watched people turn over soil with hoes on steep slopes no draft animals could walk. We joked one leg had to be shorter than the other to work in this terrain. Coming from the plains, I couldn’t imagine even walking up those vertical inclines, never mind working all day. In 2009, there were no reminders of modern civilization – electricity, medical care, or telephones.
By mid-afternoon, we pulled ashore exhausted. While the rest of us set up camp, Rom stalked fish. In these backwoods, he expected the river to be teeming. Couple of hours later, watching him dejectedly approach the camp, I knew he hadn’t caught any.
Tired of eating from cans, the support staff hoped Rom would catch some fish. One afternoon, the cook and his assistant gave him unsolicited advice: his fancy imported lures and spinners were useless. They pressed a ball of wheat dough in his hand and said, “Try this.” With nothing to lose, Rom pressed the damp glob on a hook and set off once again. Not even a nibble.
Every day we heard dull explosions reverberate down the valley. Hundreds of hydroelectric dams were scheduled to be built across the state, and we had already noticed new roads being blasted into hill sides on our way up. Rom buttonholed a Nyishi man and through elaborate pantomime asked what to use as bait. He said insects but we couldn’t figure out what kind. With renewed determination and a fat grasshopper in hand, Rom set off once more. No strike. Did the river have any fish?
The next day, we found small dead fish bobbing amongst rocks as we drifted downstream. They were all the same species of labeo, an algae-eating carp with suction pads to cling to rocks in a swift-flowing river. Rom said, “Dynamite.” The explosions we heard were not road works, but lazy, destructive fishermen. They threw a stick of ignited explosive into the river to stun fish and make them float belly up. Larger fish went into the pot, while smaller fish floated downriver, unnecessarily dead.
Had all the other kinds of fish besides the carp been wiped out? We didn’t see one leap out of the water to snatch an insect or churn the sandy coast when we sprinkled crumbs. As we followed the river’s course down the hills and closer to civilization, we passed a construction site. High above us, workers were cutting a road. Earthmovers sent huge boulders bouncing down the slope and splashing into the river, dangerously close to us. We yelled and waved our bright yellow paddles to attract the operators’ attentions. Finally, one of the bystanders gesticulated at the workers and work stopped long enough for us to row past.
Dynamite intended for road construction was being traded all the way to the interior villages. Had Rom not struggled to catch a fish day after day, we’d have been oblivious to the river’s lack of piscine life.
At one of the larger towns, Styrofoam boxes of frozen fish were being unloaded from a refrigerated truck at the market. The driver said the fish came from Andhra Pradesh, at least 1600 km away. Villagers of a state traditionally rich in natural wealth relied on fish brought in by roads that were indirectly causing the ruin of their native fish diversity.
An August 26 press release announced the discovery of a new species of fish from a tributary of the Siang, Arunachal Pradesh. I scanned down the report to see what kind of fish it was. It belonged to the same family of carp we found in the Kameng.
Rom still dreams of angling for snowtrout and mahseer.