…Community members seek sustainable solutions

Choki Wangmo

Illegal fishing activities along Wangchhu in Jigmechhu, Chukha, have become rampant in recent years. This is rapidly affecting the fish population in the ecotourism spot, which boasts over 300 bird species, including the critically endangered White-Bellied Heron.

During a three-day stakeholder meeting that concluded yesterday, members of the Jigmechhu Ecotourism Group (ECG) raised the issue, seeking sustainable measures to reduce the impact.

They mentioned that even outsiders from other dzongkhags come to fish in the area. Jigmechhu is renowned as the best fishing spot with reported sightings of the Golden Mahseer.

Golden Mahseer, which feed and spawn in the confluence of water bodies, have suffered severe population declines worldwide. Protecting the confluence is crucial for Mahseer protection.

The area is categorised as a high-end recreational fishing spot. Due to this status, community members are not allowed to practice community capture fisheries.

Within the community, there are about 20 illegal fishers, some of whom rely entirely on fishing for their income. “They use dynamite, electrocution, nets, and poisoning methods to catch fish,” said one member.

The illegally caught fish is either consumed by the culprits themselves or sold to the local market or individuals in the area.

At the ecotourism camp, the demand for bamboo fish, fish cooked in sealed bamboo, is high among many Bhutanese visitors. Raw fish cooked in a bamboo stump for an hour provides a unique experience. However, such demands that encourage illegal fishing have put the fish population in jeopardy.

Although the Forest and Nature Conservation (Amendment) Rules and Regulations of Bhutan allow only three fish of combined species for daily consumption, reports indicate that people are catching fish in large quantities.

A forester from the Darla Beat Office mentioned that complaints regarding illegal fishing activities have significantly increased this year. This could be due to the easy market, he added.

However, often the offenders cannot be penalized as the Darla Beat Office is two hours away from Jigmechhu, and the road condition is poor as well.

An official from the Gedu Forest Division stated that by the time foresters arrive at the site, the offenders manage to escape. This could explain the declining number of recorded illegal fishing cases in Chukha over the years. From 2020 to 2022, the dzongkhag recorded a total of 175 illegal fishing cases, with the highest number recorded in 2020 at 156.

Jigmechhu is located along the banks of Wangchhu in a place called Lamey, in Sharphu village, at an elevation of 180m above sea level. The place is a four-hour drive from Thimphu via Gedu-Sonamja and 19km from Lhamoidzingkha Drungkhag.

If approved, the ECG will manage fishing activities from Changchey Yarloma to Shakhu and report any illegal fishing in the area to the Gedu Forest Division. They will also ensure that visitors who fish in the area have the necessary permits.

Some stakeholders suggested drafting strict fishing rules and establishing fishery ponds within the communities to reduce illegal fishing cases along Wangchhu. However, others argue that fishery ponds are not feasible due to limestone water.

Others recommended diversifying ecotourism products such as agriculture, rafting, ecological birding, and spiritual activities.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing practices is one of the greatest threats to the marine ecosystem.