Saving the fish resources of Kaptai Lake

Shihab Sarkar   | Published: May 16, 2019 21:12:52 | Updated: May 21, 2019 21:25:31

Back in the mid-fifties to early sixties, few would have thought that the present tourist attraction of Kaptai Lake in Rangamati would eventually emerge as a source of sweet water fish. And also that one day the local administration would be compelled to slap a yearly 3-month ban on catching on all kinds of fish in the lake. Constructed as the reservoir of a mega hydro-electric project in 1956-1962, the lake inundated 54,000 acres of farmland in Rangamati district in the southern Chattogram Hill Tracts (CHT). The idea for the project came from the then Pakistan government, which received support from the USA. As time passed by, the vast water body emerged as a vast lake. With an area of approximately 11, 000 square kilometres, and an average depth of 100 feet, Kaptai Lake swallowed large tracts of forests. Besides, about 18,000 families comprising a total of almost 100 thousand people had to face displacement. Be that as it may, the water body filled with transparent wavy water with rows of steep hills on its banks finally turned out to be a tourist attraction.

Except for some local communities of indigenous people, few were aware of the lake's potential for fish resources that would migrate in small numbers from the Karnaphuli River. The lake in essence sourced from that river. As expected, it did not take long for the lake to become one day a fish hub for the greater Chattogram region. Kaptai Lake is considered one of the largest sources of sweet water fish in the Chattogram Hill Tracts region.

 The days of high fish catches in Kaptai Lake have lately fallen on bad times. One of the potential reasons being frequently cited for this decline in yields is the increasing pollution of the lake's water. Media outlets continue to give coverage to the lake's decaying condition at points featuring stagnant and fetid water, strong stench --- all resulting in a sharp drop in the number of both big and small fishes. Encroachment on the lake waters and overfishing, use of current nets to catch fish fry etc also are viewed as responsible for drop in fish catches. This has prompted the Rangamati district administration to enforce a 3-month ban on fish catching in Kaptai Lake from May 1. It is set to be in force until July 31. Officially, the administration has enforced the ban to ensure unhindered growth of fish population in the lake. With the fast increase in residents in the greater Rangamati, the demand for fish, especially those belonging to the carp group, has long been on sharp rise. The local fisheries department aims to send the lake's fishes in greater quantities to Chattogram, Dhaka and other cities upon meeting the local demand. It is also a potent reason behind forming a strong taskforce to enforce the ban. Moreover, the district administration has decided to procure a 'harvesting machine', with a view to clean up the Kaptai Lake. As they feel it, the machine's operation will help the lake become friendly to its fish resources and the overall ecosystem.

According to experienced fish producers, indiscriminate fishing in the lake has led to noticeable drop in fish populations in the water body. The enforcement of the 3-month-long fishing ban has thus been prompted by the objective to see the carp fishes supplied to bigger markets are fully mature and bigger in size. During the 3-month interlude, the lake's fishes will be allowed to reach adulthood undisturbed. In this regard, the prohibition has similarities with the ban now being enforced every year on netting mother and young fishes in certain hilsa dominated rivers. It appears to be a challenging job at times, as errant fishing people are found engaged in netting hilsa fishlings stealthily at the dead of night. But the stringent step has already started yielding dividends. The annual hilsa catch countrywide has increased manifold, with demands rising for more effective enforcement of the ban. Due to the smaller size of the fishing zone in Kaptai Lake, it seems easier for the district authorities to put in place foolproof surveillance and monitoring measures. They have taken up several preventive measures to obstruct illegal fish catching. Apart from seizing various netting devices used for fishing during the prohibition period, the taskforce is said to be given the assignment of watching that ice factories in the lake area remain closed during the ban. Its members will also have to make sure that no transport can carry fish from Rangamati and Kaptai to other paces during the prohibition period. Illegal marketing of fish will be taken care of by the law enforcement agencies. The agencies' members will be on constant patrol in the lake to bring the prohibition violators to book. A mobile court will also be in operation to punish the offenders. The volume of annual average catch of fish in the lake has come down alarmingly. Yet the average yield of fish in the lake stands at over 7,000 tonnes.

Given the relatively small area compared to the country's rivers, the task of keeping the Kaptai Lake under suerveillance round the clock doesn't seem a daunting task. It's only a few locally influential people who continue to foil the ambitious fish saving projects. They are involved in almost all the acts that will harm the lake and its fishes. Fish has little place in their mind. Starting with lakeshore grabbing to construction of rest houses and motels in the remote forest-covered shoals, they engage in every conceivable way in expediting the lake's pollution, and, finally, shrinkage. They have little idea that their acts are killing their cash cow --- here the Kaptai Lake. There are environmental and ecological activists in the area. But their wise words fall on deaf ears.

Surprisingly, despite the ban on fishing for three months to increase fish population in the lake, campaigns are non-existent which can sensitise the local people to the imperative of keeping the water body conducive to a sound environment --- and thus fish-friendly. What one sees instead are makeshift crowded fish markets along the banks, as well as fish-catching enclosures in the middle of the lake.  It is not for nothing that the lake nowadays is viewed as one becoming narrower and shorter with every passing year. Unless drastic measures are in place, Kaptai Lake might meet the fate of a decaying site of abundant fish resources.



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