Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

Dept of Environment and Climate Change
Indigenous sareng fish (Wallago attu) has virtually disappeared from Manipur's rivers, but can be brought back to life. (Left) imported from other sttes (middle) Indigenous Meitei Sareng and (right) women vendor selling Meitei Sareng.

Restoring the Original Aquatic Ecosystem of Rivers Will Help in Creating a Conducive Environment for Meitei Sareng Fish Revival in Manipur

Fish is considered as one of the essential parts of the daily diet in Manipur. Since time immemorial, the majority of people in Manipur developed a fondness of fish as a favorite cuisine. Fish farming is one of the main occupations of the state, since Manipur is blessed with a good aquatic ecosystem. Hundreds of fish farmers depend upon fishery for their livelihood. Sareng fish (Wallago Attu) is the native to the fresh water bodies of Manipur, particularly found in rivers and lakes. It is a popular fish among the local fishes and is often consumed as a cherished curry in the state. In Manipuri society, especially among the Meitei community Sareng fish holds cultural significance beyond its culinary value. It is often associated with traditional rituals, festivals and ceremonies. The fish is offered as a symbol of prosperity, good luck or as a part of religious observances. Ritualistic festivals are incomplete without Sareng fish. It also serves as a cultural emblem that enriches the identity and traditions of Manipuri society. Sareng fish has its significance in local folklore and mythology, featuring in stories that impart moral lessons or reflect the cultural ethos of the community.

Sareng fish is known as catfish or fresh water shark. The scientifica name of Sareng is Wallago attu. It is a species of fresh water fish found in South and Southeast Asia. It belongs to the family Siluridae and it is known for its size, predatory behaviour, elongated body shape and distinctive whisker-like barbels. Wallago attu typically inhabits in rivers, lakes, and reservoirs with muddy or sandy bottoms. They are nocturnal predators, feeding on fish, crustaceans, and other small aquatic animals. The fish can grow quite large, reaching lengths of over one metre and weights exceeding 40 kilograms. The nutritional value of Sareng can vary on factors such as its size, age, and habitat. Generally, it provides a good source of protein, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals.

In olden days, Sareng thrived in the lakes, rivers and water bodies in Manipur. It was abundantly found in Kongba, Iril, Imphal, Thoubal rivers and other rivers of Manipur. But in present day, it is almost extinct in rivers and other water bodies of Manipur. Not a single Sareng is being caught from rivers or other water bodies since the last two decades. With the depleted fish stock of Sareng in the state and to meet the demand of the growing population, a considerable quantity of Sareng fish stock is brought in from outside the state. Huge amount of money is being spent annually in purchasing of Sareng from outside the state. In view of the indispensability of Sareng with the socio-cultural lives of the Meitei and huge expenditure being spent on procurement of Sareng from outside, the state government has officially announced the “Sareng Project”in 2021 with the aim to revive and to culture the Sareng species in Manipur. .

Mr. Chungkham Kopeshwor Meetei from Wangoi Makha Leikai, Imphal West is one among the few farmers who take the challenges for the Sareng Project. He narrated that in 2021 as a trial he reared 44 seeds of Sareng fish purchased from Kolkata costing Rs. 80 per seeds. Within 15 days, its grow up to a length of (2-3) inches and weight around 750gram in one month. It gives Kopeshwor a ray of hope to further continue his efforts. In 2022 and 2023 around 12,000 seeds from Myanmar were introduced in his fish farm. Till now he could not make much profit in selling Sareng. He bought Tilapia, Grass, Rou and other fish as food for Sareng fish which is expensive unlike rearing other fishes. As it is carnivores, the bigger Sareng eats smaller ones. So, he rears the fish of same sizes in separate ponds. Inspite of all these, he felt happy that he could supply local Sareng when people ordered fish for many rituals and ceremonies. He is trying his level best to produce more fish in the coming years.

Talking to IRAP, Konjengbam Choaba Devi (72yrs) from Hiyangthang in Imphal West who is a fishmonger at Khwairamband Nupi Keithel for the last 30 years expressed that many people come to the market in search of Meitei Sareng for rituals and ceremonies. However, she can sell Sereng brought from Kolkata, Dimapur and sometimes from Moreh and not any local Meitei Sareng. The price of Sareng is about 380 rupees per kilogram. Few decades ago, she used to sell local Sareng but now she feels disappointed due to her inability to supply according to the demand. Transportation of the fish takes two to three days via road, and one day by air. During wedding and festive season there is a huge demand of Sareng which is purchased from other states. Sometimes Choabi purchased a fish box of (100 to 200) kg depending on the sale.

Mentioning about the initiative taken up by the State Fishery Department, Mr. Hemchandra Ningthoukhonjam, Project Officer, Directorate of Fisheries, Government of Manipur, said that the department have taken up steps to provide seeds of Sareng fish to the farmers since 2021 from outside the states. Around 2500 kg of locally reared Sareng was on sale at the Fish Fair Fish Crop Competition 2022 for the first time. Again, in the First Emoinu Fish Fair 2023 around 3000 kg of local Sareng was on sale. Mr. Hemchandra also expressed that people of the state were very happy to purchase the locally reared Sareng in the fish fairs. People were in queue to purchase it with a cost of Rs 1200 per kilogram. Before the official inauguration, all the Sareng were booked. The department is putting all efforts to provide more trainings and awareness programs to the farmers especially for rearing Sareng fish with the aim of producing more fish in the near future to meet the demand.

In this regard, Dr. Chanamthabam Basudha Devi, Principal Scientist (Fish and Fishery Science) ICAR, Research Centre for NEH Region, Manipur Centre Lamphelpat, Imphal expressed that due to discriminate fishing, construction of Ithai Barrage, pollution, loss of breeding and feeding ground, climate change and changing pattern of rainfall, deforestation etc. are some of the contributing factors for the loss of Sareng Fish in the rivers, lakes and other water bodies of Manipur. The construction of dams had blocked the migratory route of the fishes. While constructing the dam, fish passage / fish ladder should be kept in consideration in order to save the life of the fish species from extinction. Dr. Basudha expresses her willingness to consult all the stakeholders before any construction of dams in the river in the future.

As Sareng is one of the compulsory items for many rituals and celebrations in the state of Manipur, the population of Sareng species needs to increase to meet the demand. Once the state has the capacity to supply the demand of Sareng in the state, it will save a tremendous capital of the state. Producing seeds of Sareng species is a big challenge as it is carnivorous by its nature. It requires many live fish to be fed which is more expensive. Now, it is reared in the close system. In order to revive the fish in its native habitat such as rivers and lakes, the seeds need to be introduced in the rivers. The natural aquatic ecosystem required for the growing system of the fish need to be established.

Once the Sareng project becomes fully successful in the state, it will help in reviving the most popular fish species and also the water bodies of the state. It will also improve the economy of the state. Research and assessment, habitat restoration, regulation and enforcement, community engagement, stocking and breeding programs, monitoring, evaluation, collaboration and partnerships will help in reviving it. With these, implementing a comprehensive conservation strategy is also required to revive the Sareng fish population in water bodies of Manipur and ensure their long-term survival. This will also help in bringing back the rivers of Manipur in its original aquatic ecosystem.

(This article is filed under the 4th State Level Media Fellowship Programme on Climate Change under the sponsorship of the Directorate of Environment and Climate Change, Government of Manipur.)

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