Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Kelah(Mahseer):The King Of River

Deep in our pristine jungle rivers swim a fish so majestic, so beautiful and so elusive, it has become a holy grail for Malaysian and international anglers. The kelah invariably represents the ultimate challenge for these sportsmen. To locate this fish is already a triumph. Then comes the challenge of enticing it to take a bait, lure or fly. Finally, the angler has to contend with its extreme strength and tenacity before it can be brought to the sandy river bank, to be lovingly photographed and released, none the worse for wear. In fact, many a time it’s the angler who is exhausted, albeit elated!

The kelah is one of Malaysia’s precious ecological heritage; a fish that is unique to the region. It is of very high economic value too. Anglers and eco-tourists are willing to pay significant sums of money to meet this fish! The kelah is essentially a carp, placed in the order of Cypriniformes, although it is loosely related to the European barbel (Barbus barbus).. It’s closer relatives are the mahseer species of India (Tor spp.) and several other countries in Asia. You could say that kelah is amember of Asia’s prime sport fishes.

Kelah can be found in the mighty rivers of our country: Sg Pahang and its tributaries (Tembeling, Jelai, Tanum, Tahan, Keniam, Sat etc), S. Perak and its tributaries (Kejar, Chiong, Singor, Temengor), Sg. Muda and its tributaries (Teliang, Gawi), the rivers feeding Lake Kenyir (Petuang, Cacing, Terenggan, Tembat), Sg. Kelantan and its tributaries (Galas, nenggiri, Lebir, Aring, Pertang), The Endau-Rompin rivers (Endau, Kincin, Kemapan, Jasin, Mas, Lemakuh), and the Batang Rajang and Sg Kinabatangan systems. In fact, almost all the major rivers in the country – with the exception of Perlis – used to have stocks of this beautiful fish.

However, factors like polluiton, river degradation due to silting, the straightening of rivers and deforestation have combined to destroy the habitat of this fish. Further aggravating the problem is the unscrupulous fishing activities like illegal netting, bombing, poisoning and electro-fishing that have severely decimated the stocks of kelah.

If you were to be a kelah today, these are the probable scenarios you would have to face in your now-shortened life:

• Your home of deep, dark pool laced with rocks and sunken timber would now be covered with a thick layer of silt, since the clearing of vast tracts of forest would have resulted run-off due to rains.
• Your spawned eggs would not hatch. The eggs would be smothered by the silt, depriving them of the much-needed oxygen.
• You face on a daily basis a plethora of nets and humans with bombs, poisons, harpoons, and electrodes in their quest for a nice supper or a fast buck.
• You choke on the chemicals from remote factories and run-offs from agricultural activities.
• Your river gets straightened, the river becomes too fast and too shallow for you to survive. It’s like living on a walkalator.

With these scenarios, the kelah and other prime fishes like the temoleh, kelesa, kerai and tengas are doomed and heading for extinction. Ethical anglers were the first group to realise this issue. As fishermen, they are in a unique position to be able to see first hand what is happening in our rivers. Many have started the self-imposed practice of ‘catch-and-release’, preferring to go home with a cherished photo rather than a dead fish. Now, a group of concerned citizens have got together to help the authorities and the angling fraternity to conserve this precious fish. Eventually, it is hoped that it will be for the good of all – the eco-tourism industry, the recreational fishing groups, the country, and most importantly, the fish!

They call themselves KAGUM (The Kelah Action Group of Malaysia). Their activities will take a multi-pronged approach:

• Building awareness of the plight of our rivers, their fishes and especially the kelah
• Coordinating and participating in conservation activities eg. community-based fish conservation, river restoration
• Promoting conservation-centric involvement among corporations and relevant organisations in Malaysia
• Supporting the river- and fish-conservation programs spearheaded by the authorities
• Establishing a knowledge portal for the community on the kelah, Malaysian fishes and rivers.

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