Assam has abundant water bodies ideal for fish production, and it is a paradox that the state still procures 78 metric tonnes of fish daily from other states to meet its demand. Initiatives by the government have led to a significant rise in local production but the state has the potential not just to become self-sufficient in fish production but also to become a major supplier.

The Brahmaputra and Barak River systems with their tributaries and distributaries, 447 registered and 1625 unregistered beels and about 5.47 lakh ponds and numerous other water bodies constitute the vast fishery potential of the state. The state produced 4.17 lakh tonnes of fish in 2021-22, up from 3.93 lakh tonnes in 2020-21 and 3.07 lakh tonnes in 2016-17 which has helped bridge the wide gap between demand and supply. The challenge is to achieve a quantum jump in production aiming for an exportable surplus.

Besides, the local demand is also rising with an increase in per capita consumption fuelled by an increase in household income. In Assam, the per capita consumption of fish has increased to 11.72 kg/per year but it is way below Tripura with the highest per capita consumption of 29.29 kg/per year followed by Kerala with 19.41 kg, Manipur with 14.1 kg and Odisha at 13.79 kg. If the consumption in the state touches that of Tripura, the spike in demand and the local production is not increased proportionately, the success story of increasing local production and reducing procurement from outside will soon be forgotten. Ironically, per capita consumption in Andhra Pradesh, which accounts for the highest fish production of over 40 lakh tonnes among all states, is only 8.07 kg.

The southern state is a classic example of how the potential of fisheries can be harnessed to script a marketing success story and generate huge livelihood opportunities and revenue for the state. While supplies from Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh to Assam have significantly declined with an increase in local production, the illegal import of fish from Myanmar is posing a threat to the commercial interest of local fish farmers which needs to be curbed before it is too late. Such illegal and unregulated supplies also pose the threat of invasive fish species posing an extinction threat to small indigenous fish species of Assam and calls for urgent action by the State government and Fisheries Department.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nation, in its ‘The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2022 Towards Blue Transformation’ report highlights that with 1.80 million tonnes India accounts for the largest share of 16% of total inland water capture fisheries production followed by China (13%) and Bangladesh (11%). It attributes China falling behind India and not being the top producer in inland water catches first time since 1980 to a 10-year fishing ban in the waters of Yangtze River for conservation of living aquatic resources.

The FAO report states that the underlying rationale for the fishing ban by China is that “improvements in and expansion of inland aquaculture and culture-based fisheries can meet the increased demand for aquatic food arising from the reduction in catches from inland capture fisheries.” In Assam, the scheme ‘Breeding Unit for Locally Important Fishes’ funded by the National Fisheries Development Board (NFDB) is a key initiative to propagate and culture the local fish species which are in high demand within the state. According to NFDB, of the 838 freshwater fish species in India, 450 are categorized under small indigenous species.

Under the scheme, six breeding units of locally important fishes were set up in Nagaon, Dibrugarh, Kamrup, Sonitpur and Udalguri for an expenditure of Rs 32 lakh in 2020-21 and five more units in Udalguri, Nalbari, Kamrup and Dhemaji with a total expenditure of Rs 35 lakh. Considering the spread and number of the beels and water bodies sustaining indigenous fish species and also the extinction threats to these wetlands and the fish species, there is scope and need for scaling up the intervention to cover more districts. The State Government can explore providing funds from its sources if the NDFB fund support is not adequate to increase the number of such breeding units under the scheme.

The Central and the state government extending more funding support for research on local fish species, their preservation and scientific propagation will go a long way in protecting the interest of local fish farmers and meeting projected demand for fish for local consumption as well as achieving the future goals of supplying fish to other states and exporting to global destinations. Ensuring adequate quantities of quality fish seeds is a special requirement for augmenting local production and making pisciculture more attractive as a livelihood option. Boosting local production with scientific rearing practices can motivate lakhs of youth in Assam to realize the vast potential of abundant fisheries around them.