The Manipur government had drawn up an ambitious plan for captive breeding of Sareng (Wallagu Attu) earlier this year with a provision for 50 per cent grant to local fish farmers seeking loans for production of Sareng which is in high demand among the local population during feasts and Ningol Chakkouba. This has kick-started captive breeding of Sareng in some fish farms, besides other local varieties which had vanished from the rivers and lakes of the state for a variety of reasons. As the Fisheries Minister S Rajen said, it will not be available this Ningol Chakkouba for lack of maturity and growth. So, the public has to contend with iced Sareng brought from outside the state. Rest assured, Sareng locally produced in fish farms will not taste like Meitei Sareng of yore. The real Meitei Sareng is available occasionally but the price is very high and one buys it out of necessity for ritual events or if one can afford it. Rich families used to buy it and mix it with imported Sareng during feasts, including Ningol Chakkouba. On most occasions, the Nga Atoiba Thongba had been replaced with Grass Carp variety. What we know as Meitei Sareng breeds and flourishes mostly in riverine systems. Another peculiarity of Sareng and its breed is that it is carnivorous and predatory. Stocking them in the pond with other fish varieties is not advisable, as it feeds on them. It is known as a freshwater shark because of its feeding habits.
Also Read: Grant for Sareng farming
Annually, the state requirement of fish for consumption is about 52,000 metric tons while only about 32,000 metric tons are being produced by the fish farmers in the state annually. In his push for increasing production, the chief minister ordered reclaiming of vast stretches of swamps around the Loktak Lake for different forms of captive breeding of fish through the State Livelihood Mission and also opening of fish feed factories to cater to the needs of fish farmers of the state, who have had to buy feed brought from outside the state at a higher price. Whether the chief minister had been able to fulfil his promise of self-sufficiency in fish production or not is another matter. What matters is his endeavour to upscale fish production in the state, where fish is a staple diet. Yet, he must also take into consideration that Manipuris are also very choosy in terms of the kind of fish they like to eat. It was not by choice that they are now eating the Indian carps, whether imported or locally produced, but because indigenous fish varieties have become extremely scarce. Indigenous varieties like Pengba, Ngaton and Khabak have completely disappeared from the riverine system of Manipur and Loktak Lake. Of course, some entrepreneurs have started captive breeding of these delicacies in fish farms and it is reaching the market during Cheiraoba or Ningol Chakkouba festivals. This time, The Fisheries Minister had announced that 90,000 kg of fish will be on sale at the Fish Fair-cum-Fish Crop Competition 2021 to be held in Imphal as a part of the Ningol Chakouba festival of the Meetei community in the state and that these rare local varieties except Meitei Sareng would be available.
Well, what caused these indigenous fish varieties to disappear? Scientists at Manipur University and Zoological Survey of India blame changes in the hydrology due to the construction of dams, blockage of migratory routes, drying up of wetlands from siltation, eutrophication and water quality deterioration, and overexploitation for declining indigenous fish diversity in the lake. Here in the state, the culprit is the infamous Ithai Barrage. It was constructed in 1983 to elevate the water level of the Loktak Lake for the Loktak Hydroelectric Project. But it led to the destruction of this unique wetland ecosystem and vanishing of indigenous fish varieties. As many as 16 species of indigenous fish are believed to have become extinct due to the blocking of water by the Ithai barrage. For example, Pengba is the state fish of Manipur and is reported to be regionally extinct in the wild due to obstruction of its migratory route from Myanmar on account of the Ithai barrage.