Overview of Global Inland Fisheries Conference, 26-28 January 2015: Rivers support Livelihoods and Biodiversity!

The Global Inland Fisheries Conference in Rome, Italy, organized by FAO and Michigan State University concluded on the 28th January 2015. The three day conference meant a lot of things: A platform to present the worth, the potential and the challenges of a chronically neglected sector, a place to learn from experiences across the world and, as the conference website says, “a cross-sectoral call to raise the profile of inland fisheries and better incorporate them in agricultural, land use, and water resource planning through development of improved assessment frameworks and value estimation.”

Was it successful in doing all this?

Yes, to an overwhelming extent. But, in the end I was left with some questions as well.The concluding day began with an inspiring plenary address by Paul Lumley, Executive Director of the Columbia River Inter Tribal Fisheries Commission (CRITFC) which has done exemplary work in safeguarding fishing rights of tribal Indian communities in Columbia River basin shared by the United States and Canada. Mr. Lumley, himself a Yakama Indian, highlighted the need of not only litigation, but cooperation and consensus in bringing all concerns on board and respecting tribal rights to their “first foods”. The CRITFC was formed in 1977 by 4 tribes and since then, these tribes have become leaders in “putting fish back in the rivers and protecting the watersheds where fish live.” They participate in interstate agreements and international treaties controlling salmon harvest and water management, they are successfully rebuilding naturally spawning salmon populations, and they are restoring habitat and protecting the water flowing in the rivers. The Salmon decline has been reversed since!

Paul Lumley from CRITFC Photo: GIFC

Paul Lumley from CRITFC Photo: GIFC

He significantly stated that one of the best measures against Climate Change impacts is to reestablish connectivity in rivers, fragmented by dams. CRIFTC has many successes to its credit: asserting and securing tribal fishing rights in Columbia basin, several litigations, more responsible stand by dam developers in the basin, installation of fish passages in some dams and even decommissioning of others like the Conduit dam. His talk was indeed a great start to the day.

This was followed by Olcay Unver,Deputy Director of Land and Water Division, FAO, who stressed the importance of cross sectoral collaborations, especially in policy affecting fish. He also agreed that this is easier said than done, with ill-defined water tenure processes in inland fisheries sector.

Overview of Thematic discussions:

Discussions and presentations were divided into 4 themes: Biological Assessment, Social and Economic Assessment, Drivers and Synergies and Policy and Governance. All themes had excellent presentations from across the world, however participation was slightly hampered because of the distance between theme rooms and complicated lay out of the FAO building.

Economic and Social Assessment Theme: SANDRP made presentations in three different themes and our first presentation was at the Economic and Social Assessment Theme on “River Sanctuaries of India” which are community conservation initiatives, protecting, worshipping fish and riverine stretches through the country. These sanctuaries cross the borders of geographies and also religions. Many such sanctuaries have already submerged or have dried out due to dams and many are on the verge of destruction, mainly due to the unregulated mini hydel sector. The presentation was well received by the audience. (Find complete presentation here: https://sandrp.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/river_sanctuaries_india_global_inland_fisheries_conference.pdf)


The Economic and Social Assesment Theme had some excellent presentations from across the world, including one from Cambodia by Eric Baran, which studied the impacts of Mekong Dams on fisheries in Cambodia  and tried to assess “How much does capture fisheries contribute to Rural Livelihoods in Cambodia?”  It tried to evaluative the replacement costs of river fisheries which would be destroyed by nearly half their current yield, if the dams on Mekong come up. Replacement by other sourcamazones of protein like Beef, Poultry or Milk Products would require not only more water from the river, but also more land and energy and will not be even a comparable replacement. The dams would have a direct negative impact on the nutritional profile of the region downstream as well as upstream the damsites.

A similar study from Amazonia presented by Victoria Judit Isaac highlighted the extremely high per capita consumption of more than 400 gms of fish per day from the river by tribes staying along Amazon and its tributaries! The numbers were indeed surprising and so was the agreement that nutritional security like this is not worth compromising. There are no such studies or assessments in India, even for riverine systems like Brahmaputra and our fisheries scientists and institutions can learn a lot from these examples.

Claudio Baigun, Fisheries Expert from Argentina discussing the impacts of Amazonia dams on Fisheries Photo: SANDRP

Claudio Baigun, Fisheries Expert from Argentina discussing the impacts of Amazonia dams on Fisheries Photo: SANDRP

In fact in her plenary on the 27th January, Nanna Roos University of Copenhagen, Denmark stressed the importance of not only larger, predominantly aquaculture species, but smaller species found in rivers in the nutritional profile of the poor and especially children. It is these smaller fish, many of which are region specific, which contain not only protein, but micro nutrients like zinc, selenium, iodine and even calcium in form on bones. The nutritional richness of small fish cannot be replaced by large, aquaculture raised varieties, like it is done in India in dam reservoirs. The small fish depend on a flowing rivers so conserving them would mean conserving their habitat too.

Fish of the Shastri estuary Photo: SANDRP

Fish of the Shastri estuary Photo: SANDRP

Centre for Inland Fisheries Education (CIFE), India presented in this session, where they talked about the “Inland Fisheries: A Sunrise or Sunset Sector” and stressed that although the sector has robustly contributed to fisheries production, the investment in the sector is woefully low. However, there was no stress on how “Inland Fisheries” we Indians allude to is mainly based on reservoirs and the figures do not reflect riverine fisheries’ potential or actual contribution.

In fact, nomenclature was a major handicap. The correct term to be used in this context would be Inland Capture Fisheries, which mainly means fishing in natural sources like Rivers and wetlands and is a subset of Inland Fisheries (which also includes Aquaculture/ hatchery-based fisheries, fish farms, etc.,). As SANDRP pointed out several times, there has to be clear distinction between Inland Fisheries and Inland Capture Fisheries as the diversity, equity, nutritional and livelihood support and potential of riverine/ inland capture fisheries is not even comparable with dam-based, artificially-seeded fisheries. However, nowhere in the world is the dichotomy between dam-based fisheries and riverine fisheries as pronounced as in India, hence there is a difficulty in appreciating India’s unique position!

As Claudio Baigun eloquently said, River fisheries and hatcheries-based fisheries or aquaculture are very different from each other. Whereas a hectare of Hatchery can employ one person, a hectare of flowing, healthy river can provide livelihood, nutritional and economic support to about 10 fishers!

In the plenary on the concluding day, important points put forth by this theme included stress on economic assessment of Inland Fisheries while taking policy or management decisions affecting the sector or its habitat, stress on the significant role played by the sector in nutritional security of the world’s poor and cross linkages of Inland Fisheries with cultural and social heritage of regions. The need to preserve the natural biodiversity in the context of climate change was also highlighted.

Policy and Governance Theme: This theme again had interesting insights from a number of regions and SANDRP presented about the Policy and Governance issues with Indian Riverine Fisheries. Riverine Fisheries in India is a completely ungoverned sector with no regulation, no protection and no conservation. Dams are destroying inland fisheries and dependent livelihoods of millions of marginal fishers, but these issues do not find a mention in any policies, programs, impact assessments or compensation plans. The audience was shocked to listen to this. We had heard of problems in governance from other countries like Ghana and Malawi, but this sheer absence of governance was something new. As Claudio Baigun from Argentina put it, India can be an excellent example of bad governance of Riverine fisheries. It was not pleasant to hear, but it’s time we accept this and work on it for our rivers and communities that depend on them. (Full presentation can be seen here: https://sandrp.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/policy_governance_indian_fisheries_global_inland_fisheries_conference_fao.pdf)


In its recommendations to the Plenary, the group stressed application of ecosystems approach and inclusion of Climate Change concerns while working on Inland Fisheries Policies, recognizing the role of stocking and aquaculture but not accepting it as the first management intervention, but only as a last resortbasinauthorities (as the diversity and resilience of riverine fisheries in places like Asia, South America, South East Asia, etc., is very high), increasing monitoring and access to information within and across the sector, Inclusion of all communities involved in fisheries in decision making in the sector, conserving ecosystems where productive inland fisheries exist, Inclusion on Inland fisheries issues in trans-boundary  and water sharing agreements (This promises to be crucial for India), recognizing, respecting and protecting  fishing rights of local communities. In fact, in his plenary address, Devin Bartley, Fisheries Expert from the FAO stated that only half of the transboundary rivers have treaties and barely 11% of these including fisheries provisions, adding: “If a country upstream dams a river or drains a wetland, fisheries management downstream is fairly useless.” Reminds one of Farakka Barrage!

Drivers and Synergies Theme: This theme again had some great presentations including one by Dr. Nilesh Heda of India on integrating riverine restoration, community empowerment and watershed management in Fisheries agenda. SANDRP presented at the poster session on “Impacts of Dams in Riverine Fisheries of India”. A number of heated discussions made the session interesting. A World Bank Fisheries Expert said that Riverine fisheries hardly contributed to any fisheries production in the India. Considering the fact that nearly 2 million people depend on Brahmaputra fisheries and more than 5 million on Gangetic fisheries, such an assumption is highly erroneous, but it cannot be blamed in the absence of data, studies and zero attention paid to the sector. (Please see full version of Poster here: https://sandrp.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/parineeta-dandekar-poster-80-x-100-cm.pdf)


In the plenary, the main points submitted by this sector included: Explicitly acknowledge trade offs made while allocating water to other sector and need to develop economic approaches to promote sustainability of Inland Fisheries. It also recommended use of litigation to support Inland Fisheries Sector in face of threats. The Conference lamented that there are hardly any freshwater biodiversity conservation sites and more Ramsar sites are associated with water fowl (largely) and there is a gap in conservation of freshwater diversity. Regrettably this was the only conservation related point presented by the Plenary in the entire conference! Looking at the unique, cross cutting positioning of inland fisheries in livelihood as well as conservation and biodiversity realm, the neglect of this issue in the conference (or first round of recommendations) is a major limitation.

 In conclusion:

In concluding remarks, nearly everyone accepted that this conference is a start in the process and more robust, more rigorous steps need to be taken by all concerned to raise the profile of this sector. While the discussions and plenary recommendations were indeed useful, they seemed somewhat lacking in strong, crisp and actionable statements. Particularly an unambiguous statement from all themes and attendants on safeguarding rivers as livelihoods sources and habitats for most threatened biodiversity (aquatic) in face of huge dam onslaught in some of the biggest Inland Fisheries Nations was sadly missing. As someone in the audience rightly pointed out, this may be due to limited participation from countries like India and China whose problems are different. The slight neglect of biodiversity concerns also needs to be mentioned. The final statement is still to be issued and will hopefully make rounds with the participants, where there would be an opportunity of sharpening some of the stands. We hope this happens. In the meantime, its good to see release by FAO titled clearly: ‘Lakes and Rivers are key to Livelihoods of Millions‘ It states: “Pollution and the building of hydro-electric dams and channels impacts the availability and quality of inland waters that are home to diverse types of fish.”

To sum up, the conference was indeed a great start in bringing issues of rivers, fish and communities on table and we thank FAO and Michigan State University for initiating this global process. In its unassuming, non-consumptive, low-carbon footprint way, Inland Capture Fisheries is one of our most valuable assets.

This initiative holds huge lessons for India. We urgently need to asses our riverine fisheries production, composition, richness, dependence, nutritional & livelihood support it provides, impacts of pressures like dams and pollution, riverine fishing communities and their issues, etc. Although the world acknowledges that it is lagging behind in appreciating the importance of Inland Fisheries, India seems to be doing particularly bad on this front. Considering that we are a mega diverse country in terms of freshwater fish species and the fact that millions of Indians depend on riverine fisheries for their livelihoods, we need to respond urgently to challenges posed.

Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP, parineeta.dandekar@gmail.com



1. Earlier Blog on this conference: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2015/01/27/global-conference-on-inland-fisheries-opening-day/

2. Parineeta Dandekar’s presentation at the FAO Conference on Policy and Governance of Indian Indian Inland Fisheries Sector: https://sandrp.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/policy_governance_indian_fisheries_global_inland_fisheries_conference_fao.pdf

3. Parineeta Dandekar’s presentation at the FAO Conference on Community River Conservation Sanctuaries: https://sandrp.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/river_sanctuaries_india_global_inland_fisheries_conference.pdf

4. SANDRP’s Post Presentation at the FAO Conference on Dams and Inland Fisheries in India: https://sandrp.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/parineeta-dandekar-poster-80-x-100-cm.pdf
5. See for the first day live coverage http://inlandfisheries.org/?p=738 and plenary excerpts http://inlandfisheries.org/?page_id=355
6. http://indiablooms.com/ibns_new/finance-details/1507/un-agency-urges-greater-protections-for-inland-fisheries.html

One Comment on “Overview of Global Inland Fisheries Conference, 26-28 January 2015: Rivers support Livelihoods and Biodiversity!

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