Manipuri cuisine is unthinkable without it. It’s an integral part of the cultural traditions of the 2.5 million people of Manipur.
It’s in danger of disappearing.
Environmental changes, pollution, developmental activities and introduction of non-local fish species in pisciculture have depleted indigenous fish in the state to the brink of extinction.
Indigenous fish species are threatened in other states too (see box), for similar reasons. In Orissa and Kerala, where the livelihood of lakhs of people depends on fish and freshwater fish is an important part of people’s diet, introduction of exotic species and industrialisation is threatening several native fish species.
“Manipur’s hydrological system has been drastically changed due to human pressure,” environmentalist H. Nandiram Sharma said.
“In the early 20th century, the state had around 100 lakes, but, except Loktak, Pumlen and Sanapat, all of them are dead now.”
The director of the state’s fisheries department, K. Saratkumar, seems to agree. “Drying up of wetlands and farming of high- yielding fish variety are some of the factors responsible for the dying of local fish (varieties),” he said.
At least 15 of Manipur’s 220 local fish species are endangered, according to Professor W. Vishwanath of Manipur University’s life sciences department.
Among them are nganap, sareng khoibi, ngasep and ngamu.
Many other species are under strain.
Pengba, which used to be found abundantly in Loktak Lake and Nambul River, is extinct in its wild habitat, and only bred in farms now.
Besides their food value, local fish species play a vital role in preserving the rich culture and tradition of the state.
Traditionally, the tiny nganap forms part of the meal of newly-wedded Manipuris.
“Earlier, we used to get these fish in lakes, but it’s very hard to find them now,” said Ibecha, a fish vendor in Imphal’s Pishum market.
The upstream areas of major rivers in the state are the breeding ground of many species.
But dumping of waste and sewage into the rivers, and prolonged use of fertilisers and pesticides in agriculture, have made many species disappear from the bazaar in the past 10 years.
“Indiscriminate fishing of fingerlings and use of chemical fertilisers in agricultural land are the key reasons for the disappearance of local fish varieties such as ngakra,” Lokeshwar, a researcher in Manipur University’s life science department, said.
Fishmongers have taken to selling fingerlings of indigenous local species. Bigger and full-grown ngakra and ngamu are seen only once in a while.
“Farmers should be made aware about the feasibility of farming local fish varieties with technical inputs from experts,” said Dhanabir, a fish farmer from Ningombam village in Manipur’s Imphal west district.
The fisheries department is slowly waking up to the collateral damage caused by mass-producing non-local rohu, grass carp and common carp fish species to meet the state’s annual demand of 25,000 metric tonnes, and is now encouraging farming of native and endangered varieties.
The department organises training programmes on local fish farming.
More such endeavours are required to save the state’s endangered fish — and centuries of Manipuri traditions.