With a vast coastline of 8000 km, India is home to more than 10% of the global fish biodiversity. Could that have made more than half the nation pescatarians? The ready availability of both freshwater and saltwater fishes in India is a phenomenon that has made us take for granted the blooming biodiversity of our oceans. At times, therefore, we fail to appreciate the bounty and end up abusing it for our own benefits. Over-fishing is a phenomenon that has affected the country for ages. Besides, climate change has also been one of the major precursors of decreased breeding of certain fish varieties, especially the Hilsa, which are a staple in Bengali households.
However, since the coastline of India, which supports nearly 250 million people, contributes largely to the growth of the Indian economy, a complete stalling of fishing activities is definitely not an option. So, a balance needs to be struck between monetising the fish business and preserving the biodiversity, thereby, leading to a healthy aquatic ecosystem. In pursuit of the balance, for starters, we could introduce ourselves to the different kinds of fish that thrive in the freshwater ecosystem of India.
Here’s a humble attempt at drawing a list.
This graceful Indo-Gangetic riverine species is the natural inhabitant of the riverine system of northern and central India, and the rivers of Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. In India, it has been transplanted into almost all riverine systems including the freshwaters of Andaman, where its population has successfully established.
Known as ‘Rui’, ‘Ruee’, or ‘Tapra’, this variety of fish has a small head, sharp face, with a frilled lower lip. It has a long, circular body, with brown-grey coloured body coat, and scales on the entire body except for its fins and head. The ‘rohu’ fish carries a total of 7 fins on its body. Its food consists of rotten weeds, and left-over waste materials. It lays eggs once a year during the monsoon season. The ‘rohu’ is the most famous and popular because of its taste and high market demand. It is used as a culture species in aquaculture. Mostly found in freshwater ponds, ditches, canals, rivers, and lakes, it is reared along with ‘Mrigala’ and ‘Catla’ fishes in equal proportions. Also known as Carpo fish, Rohu is enriched with a handsome amount of protein, Omega 3 fatty acids and vitamins A, B, and C.
Also known as the major South Asian Carp, Catla is an economically important freshwater fish in the carp family and is native to the riverine systems in northern India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan. It has a large and broad head, a protruding lower jaw, and an upturned mouth. It has large, greyish scales on its dorsal side and whitish on its belly. As the species breeds in the riverine ecosystem, its ready seed availability has helped in establishing its aquaculture in the peripheral region of the riverine system in these countries. The natural distribution of catla seems to be governed by temperature dependency rather than latitude and longitude. The minimum tolerance temperature limit is ~14 °C. Catla attains maturity in its second year, performing a spawning migration during the monsoon season towards the upper stretches of rivers, where males and females congregate and breed in shallow marginal areas. The spawning season coincides with the south-west monsoon in north-eastern India and Bangladesh, which lasts between May and August, and in north India and Pakistan from June to September.
The Mahseers are an iconic group of fish found throughout the fast-flowing rivers of south and southeast Asia. Characterised by their large scales, attractive appearance and potentially vast size, the mahseers have long been afforded saintly status as ‘God’s fishes’. They are also known to anglers as some of the world’s hardest fighting freshwater game fish, earning them the reputation of “tigers of the water.” Of the 18 currently valid species of mahseer, the official IUCN Red List of Threatened Speciescurrently lists four as endangered, one as vulnerable, and one as near threatened. The hump-backed mahseer was first brought to the attention of the world’s anglers in Henry Sullivan Thomas’s 1873 classic, The Rod in India. During British rule, several huge specimens were recorded, including the still-standing world rod-caught record, a 120lb (54kg) monster captured in 1946 by a taxidermist from Mysore known as de Wet Van Ingen. Indian independence followed soon after, and the mahseer was largely forgotten by the outside world, with many believing the fish had been dynamited to extinction.
A favourite monsoon staple of the Bengalis, ‘Ilish Maach’ or the Hilsa fish, hails from the Chandpur district of Bangladesh. The species is also found in the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and the Vietnam Sea to the China Sea. Like the salmon, hilsas live most of their lives in salt water and swim to freshwater and estuarine waters to spawn (release eggs). Hilsa start swimming upstream during the southwest monsoon when the rivers swell. The hatchlings go back to the sea and repeat the cycle. The Hilsa fishery in India and Bangladesh is dependent on hilsa harvested from a particular area: the Indo-Gangetic and Brahmaputra river basins. The species breed throughout the year with peak activity in October-November and minor spawning phases in February-March and July-August in various rivers and estuaries in the region. Annual average production of hilsa in India is 40,000 tonnes per year. In West Bengal, hilsa is an important component of the state fishery, accounting for about 11 percent of the total fish landings.
Alilia Coila, also known as the Gangetic ailia, is a species of catfish native to Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan. This species grows to a length of 30 centimetres and is of importance to local commercial fisheries.
Pink Perch or Rani is a common freshwater gamefish found in India. Pink in colour and small in size, this fish has a mild taste when cooked. Due to just about 5% of body fat, this fish is not oily and hence it is called a lean fish. It is very nutritious and is rich and tender in DHA.
Indo-Pacific King Mackerel, popularly known as ‘seer fish’, is found in and around the Indian ocean and adjoining seas.It is a popular game fish, weighing up to 45 kg and is a strong fighter, that has on occasion been seen to leap out of the water when hooked. It is popular among the countries of the Indian subcontinent including Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. In Maharashtra and Goa the ‘seer’ fish is called ‘Surmai’, in Tulunad it is called ‘Anjal’. Usually the costliest variety available, in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, it is called ‘Vanjaram’ as well as ‘Shermai’.
The Pearl Spot, popularly known as ‘Karimeen’ in Kerala is an indigenous fish extensively found along the east and south-west coasts of Peninsular India. It is cultivated in ponds in both brackish water and freshwater environments. It is abundantly available in the lakes of Kerala, especially the Ashtamudi Lake in Kollam, Vembanad Lake and the Vellayani Lake in Thiruvananthapuram.
An adult Karimeen is oval in shape with a short snout. It is grey-green in colour with dark barring and a dark spot at its base. A fully grown pearl spot fish is about 40 centimetres long weighing about two kgs. Apart from Kerala, the fish curry is very famous in the regions of Bengal. Odisha and Konkani regions as well. The fish feeds on algae, plants and water insects.
Trout is a species of freshwater fish closely related to salmon and can be found in the Himalayan region of India. Lake Trout and most other trout live in freshwater lakes and rivers exclusively, while there are others, such as the steelhead, a form of the coastal rainbow trout, that can spend two or three years at sea before returning to freshwater to spawn (a habit more typical of salmon). Arctic Char and Brook Trout are part of the Char family. Trout are an important food source for humans and wildlife, including brown bears, birds of prey such as eagles, and other animals. They are classified as oily fish. Trouts have different colours and patterns according to the environments they live in. Mostly, these colours and patterns form as camouflage, based on the surroundings, and will change as the fish moves to different habitats. Trout in, or newly returned from the sea, can look very silvery, while the same fish living in a small stream or in an alpine lake could have pronounced markings and more vivid colours. Trout cultivation is common in the states of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, the western ghats of Tamil Nadu (TN) and Kerala and, to some extent, in North Bengal, Manipur, Meghalaya, and Nagaland.
If you enjoyed reading this article, we suggest you also read:The Bombay Duck’s Gutsy Journey From The Sea To Our Dining Tables