Global conference on inland fisheries decry impact of dams

-Parineeta Dandekar, Indian expert writes
Tuesday was the first day of the Global Conference on Inland Fisheries organized by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations in collaboration with Michigan State University.  This is said to be the first such conference on Inland Fisheries which has been a neglected field, despite its spectacular contribution to livelihood security, nutritional security, low carbon foot print and low inputs. The Conference Website says: “In Rome in January 2015, a ground-breaking conference will for the first time address the challenges and opportunities for freshwater fisheries on a global scale. Never before have scientists, policy makers, and the international development community gathered together to discuss the food security, economic, and ecological issues associated with inland fisheries around the world. This global conference is a cross-sectoral call to raise the profile of inland fisheries and better incorporate them in agricultural, land use, and water resource planning through development of improved assessment frameworks and value estimation.”Considering the fact that India is World’s second largest Inland Fisheries producer and that the Inland Fisheries sector is growing at a rate that is nearly twice its marine counterpart, I was expecting to see active participation from Indian agencies. No government institute is represented here.
The apathy of Indian Administration towards Inland, especially Riverine Fisheries is not new. Although more than 10 million Indians depend on rivers, floodplains, wetland and reservoirs for nutritional and livelihood security, we have next to no data about either the people dependent on rivers, or their catch, or its composition, or its problems.
On the opening day Tuesday, one of the main issues raised by Keynote speakers like Devin Bartley (FAO, UN) was the underestimation of this sector by all other sectors. Robin Welcomme, from Imperial College London and an authority on Inland Fisheries,rightly said, “Inland fisheries is affected by all other sectors, except Inland Fisheries.”
Speakers recored their concern that catch estimates put together by FAO are not what they seem and maybe less than half of what is actually coming out of the rivers. The data collection of riverine and inland fisheries is poor, it is too decentralized which is its strengths as well as weakness as then we don’t know which resource is contributing to what. As President Lou Anna Simon from Michigan State University said, ” We need more data, good quality data. We cannot manage that we cannot measure.”
Several experts including socio-anthropologists and nutritional experts from across the world stressed the importance of nutrional security aspect of Inland, specially Riverine Fisheries: Fish provide significant proteins, micro-nutrients,  Iron and selenium, calcium and are an extremely important nutritional support for marginalized groups who have other limited options.
Nearly everyone Tuesday drew attention to how the sector is being bulldozed by other “powerful sectors”.
President Ms.Simon said that Inland Fisheries and their contribution to nutritional and livelihood security is “being silenced by more powerful water users like Hydropower, Transportation and Irrigation. Proper management of riverine fisheries has the potential of helping communities as well as ecosystems and it is time to respect the voices of fishers and not drown them out.
Robin Welcomme gave a succinct talk on th evolution of Inland Fisheries , mainly riverine capture fisheries and how it was completely different in temperate and tropical countries. He talked about the “Fishing Down Process” in which larger species are being replaced by smaller species, due to various pressures, something we have seen significantly in Indian Rivers. He also said that there has to be in depth study of stocking rivers,  to see, “Whether it is helping at all or not”.  He said that Top down management of fisheries is not working and we should be thinking of decentralized planning now, making fishers the focal point of data collection, management as well as governance. He said: “Cross sectoral planning is uncommon but it is integral for sectors like Inland Fisheries. Tuesday, the future of human race depends on cross sectoral and integrative thinking and not divisive, compartmentalized thinking. Such a sector is dependent on Environmental Flows and more attention needs to paid towards such synthesis.”
Fisheries Scientist Scott Boner of USGS and University of Arizona said something very interesting: “If you are a fishing scientist, chances are you would also be visiting court rooms often. I did. One was against a copper mine destroying fish habitat and there I realised the importance of scientific and standardized data collection”. In India, our rivers and fishing communities will gain a lot if Fisheries Scientists working in various institutions speak up for fish and fisheries and also collect and make public credible fisheries data.
It was disappointing to see very limited participation of Asian Fisheries experts in the opening session. India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc., are not only largest inland fish producers, they also have their own specific problems and issues which need to be discussed. In the absence of engagement from these countries, reports and papers coming out of such conferences may miss the elephant in the room.
Nearly all experts, from Mekong to Niger, from Argentina to Brazil to China to Mali expressed deep concerns about dams and their impacts on fisheries, floodplains, flood pulses and also equity.  Dr. Muhammed Naeem Khan from Pakistan said, “Aren’t we holding this conference 30 years too late? Isn’t the paradise already lost for many rivers in many countries?”
However, as veteran expert Robin Welcomme said, “I personally feel that is very important  for a sector like our which is diffuse and low key to confront the interests of those who construct mega dams.”
Let us hope in the coming two days something concrete on this front emerges from a diffused group of scientists policymakers and civil society. In the conundrum of large dams, hydropower, pollution and decreasing flows, securing rightful place for fisheries and fisher people is going to be an uphill task.
When millions of Indian (and other nation’s) people’s livelihood depend on inland fisheries but remains outside the radar of the decision makers, I hope there is sufficient outrage and useful outcomes for these people from here.
-Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP,