Punatsangchu: More than five illegal fish vendors (shops) and eight illegal fishermen in Punakha and Wangdue were caught and fined by the Wangdue forest division  during special patrols it conducted in the last two weeks.

The patrols, which started on May 25, have netted fines worth Nu 126,500, seized fish and various fishing equipment as of June 10.

Assistant divisional forestry official with Wangdue division, Tashi Dendup said the special patrolling was necessary because Punatsangchu was one of the most important river basins, in terms of conservation.  First, it is a habitat zone of the white-bellied heroin, with the river playing host to 23 of the total 28 white-bellied heron in the country.

Second, Punatsangchu is a migratory route for the golden mahseer, an internationally endangered fish species, which is also depicted as one of the eight lucky signs in Bhutan.

The crackdown on illegal fishing also came following several complaints, mostly verbal, about the availability of Punatsangchu fish in Thimphu and in the local shops.

Tashi Dendup said they have three range offices along the river basins of Punakha, Lobesa and Wangdue, where foresters patrol everyday. “But during special patrolling, we use different strategies to catch the fishermen and, particularly, the illegal fish vendors,” he said.

He said since most fishermen are professionals who manage to escape easily, it’s difficult to nab them during daily patrolling.

“On May 25, we spotted a man using live-bait below the confluence of Punatsangchu, but when we told him that it’s not allowed, he absconded ignoring our interrogation,” a forest official said. “However, he dropped his cell phone and we managed to take his picture.”

Following this incident, the foresters lodged a written complaint against the man with Punakha police.  He was caught four days later, handed over to the forest division and the case settled.

The fisherman was fined for fishing in a restricted area, fishing during a holy month (sagadawa) and also for ignoring forest officials’ questions.

On the same day, the officials also found two shops that were illegally selling local fish in Samdingkha. “We’d received several complaints from local people that there are lots of illegal fish vendors,” forest officials said.

The second crackdown took place in Punakha, where foresters caught three fishermen in Changyul, along the Punakha river.  The fishermen turned out to be professionals and were using traps, snares and hooks. “We seized the fishing equipment and fined them,” officials said.

Another shop selling local fish in large quantity was found in Khawajara in Toewang gewog, Punakha. From this shop, officials seized more than 170 fish.  The shop owner was charged with a  fine that was calculated as per the number of fish and its market value.

On June 10, the forest officials caught two shop-owners from Daga gewog, who were also illegally selling and supplying local fish.

Forest officials said the whole river basins under Wangdue forest division, starting right below Gasa until the end of Wangdue is a restricted area and no fishing permits are issued.  Restrictions are also imposed on auspicious days like the 8th 10th 15th 25th and 30th of a Bhutanese month.  Fishing is also banned on religious occasions.

Records with the division show that the trend of illegal fishing since 2011 has declined, mainly due to frequent advocacy programs and regular patrolling.

By Dawa Gyelmo, Wangdue