Two endangered species of otters that have made Canacona rivers their homes now compete with local fishermen for fish; Fishermen complain of nets being cut and dwindling catch
In normal circumstances fingers are pointed at commercial trawlers that enjoy political backing and often overfish close to the coast. However, this time around, in the current problem faced by the traditional fishermen of Canacona, trawler owners do not seem to be the culprits.
In fact, the accused is an aquatic mammal that has survived in these parts. Local fishermen have been blaming an endangered species of otters for their dwindling catch of fish in recent times.
Canacona taluka is home to three rivers and a rivulet, with about 100 kms stretch of waterway that has been the sole source of livelihood for hundreds of families over centuries.
Environmentalists point out that there are about thirteen species of otters in the world, five of which are found in Asia. Canacona taluka has the distinction of being home to two - the Asian small-clawed otter and the smooth-coated otter. In fact, both these species feature on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list, thus providing them a ‘vulnerable’ and ‘protected’ status.
However, local fishermen say this protection has caused an uncontrolled increase in the population of otters in the river waters of the taluka. And since otters sustain on fish, they see this as the main reason for the reduction in fish catch in recent times.
The Asian small-clawed otter is mostly found in up streams of rivers with fresh water all year round and with minimal fishing activity up streams is considered to be harmless to human beings living there. Fingers also point at the smooth-coated otters, a freshwater species that has adapted well in the mangroves and brackish waters. This variety thrives in the lower portion of the rivers, where the tide reaches. Fishermen point out that these are a constant nuisance.
These creatures are normally diurnal, but the otters here spend most part of the day in burrows dug on the river banks and hunt for fish at night. They hardly come out in the open in the day and sighting them is often difficult.
Dinesh Pagi, a traditional fisherman from Sadolxem, whose main source of income comes from the fish caught by casting nets in Talpona river, is very critical about these shy creatures. "These smart animals damage our nets and eat the fish we have caught, thus affecting our livelihood," he complains.
Elders say there is multifold increase in the population of this marine species for the past few years. In fact, local fishermen even put the figures close to a thousand, in the rivers in the taluka.
Fishermen, who cast nets like katali, rapon, khutani (local names for different methods of catching fish) have suffered losses as the smooth-coated otters gnaw at their nets, destroying large portions with their sharp teeth.
Fishermen complain that otters not only have diminished their catch, but also destroy their nets.
Enquiries with the wild life office in Canacona revealed that neither the wild life nor any other organisation have conducted a study or survey on the numbers of and behavior of the otters that are on top of the food chain in the rivers of Canacona taluka.
Environmentalists counter by saying that an increase in numbers indicates healthy river ecosystem, as these small mammals prey on both living as well as dead variety of fish, crabs, birds, frogs and other aquatic life, thus preventing fish diseases from spreading.
Looking at both points of view, there is a situation where the over-exploitation of food resources combined with the threat to the livelihood of the local fishing community that has depended on these waters for ages threatens the existence of both man and animal.
There is good news though. Globally, many countries have started breeding smooth-coated otters in captivity and have trained, and used them to chase fish into fishing nets. This technique is currently used effectively by fishermen in those countries.
This, then, clearly is one way the wild life department and department of fisheries with the direct involvement of local fishermen can create a win-win solution to the problem otherwise a bleak future stares at us, says Pradeep Mokhardakar, a traditional fisherman from Talpona