The banned catfish is reared in many parts of the State, including Hassan, Chikmagalur and Bagepalli. Rearing of the African catfish was banned in 2000 under the Environment Protection Act, and this was upheld by the Supreme Court and Karnataka High Court in 2012.
The High Court directed Deputy Commissioners of all districts to eradicate the catfish in view of its health hazards. It also told the authorities to destroy all catfish-rearing ponds.
The Court had directed all Deputy Commissioners to submit compliance reports within six months. Accordingly, they submitted reports saying they had destroyed all ponds. The government then filed an affidavit stating that the menace had been completely eradicated, but the fact is that it thrives with no fear of the law.
Farm Near Anekal Ishtiaq rears catfish in Matnalli of Anekal taluk in Bangalore Urban district. He has taken three acres on lease by paying `6,500 a year.
The farmer who gave him the land doesn’t know about the environmental degradation it causes. Ishtiaq has built five tanks and rears 50,000 catfish in each.
Each fish can grow up to three feet and 25 kg, but the harvest is done early, when the fish have attained a weight of one or two kilos.
Even if a fish farmer like Ishtiaq makes about `100 on each fish (it retails for `160 a kilo), in six months he can earn at least `25 lakh.
Polluting the Cauvery
Once the catfish are harvested from the tank, the cultivators let out the filthy water into a channel that leads to the Cauvery. The river is then polluted with decomposed animal waste. When an Express team visited Matnalli, it saw vultures circling around for the meat.
A catfish entering the river is a threat to the diversity of aquatic life and that is the main reason the government has banned its cultivation.
The catfish, also called thai magur, was smuggled into West Bengal from Bangladesh in 2003. In subsequent years, it gained entry into rivers like the Ganga, Yamuna, Sutlej and Godavari.
In a 2013 fish census, conducted by the Karnataka Fisheries Department, scientists found a decrease in the numbers of native fish species in Bangalore’s water bodies. They held several factors responsible— water pollution due to dumping of construction waste, sewage and industrial effluents. But a study found that the African catfish was gobbling up the diversity.
Hawkers in markets such as the one in Bangalore’s Madiwala show customers live catfish to convince them it is fresh. They sell catfish for about `160 a kg, while they quote at least `100 more for other varieties of fish. Many customers are convinced it is a cheap option and are not aware of the risk to their health.
‘Raiding Markets is BBMP’s Job’
The rearing and transport of the catfish is banned in Karnataka, advocate M Sreenivasa, who argued a public interest case, told Express.
The district authorities know about the racket, he alleged. “What is stopping them from raiding the markets where it is sold openly?,” he asked. Bangalore Urban Deputy Commissioner G C Prakash said hundreds of catfish ponds were destroyed in Yelahanka last year.
He said it was the duty of the BBMP to raid markets, and said many farmers sell it directly to hotels and restaurants where the cooks fry it in order to rid it of its bitter taste.
Aggressive Dogs Another Threat
Catfish farms near Anekal stink, but a bigger problem is what they do to the immediate environment. Vultures and birds of prey frequent the farms and some get stuck in the nets spread out to catch the catfish.
The waste strewn all around attracts dogs, which gradually become aggressive and start hunting for meat. They become uncharacteristically ferocious and chase humans.
Catfish farmers heat up the feed using plastic and rubber waste. (Unregulated, open burning of plastic and rubber is banned). The dark, toxic fumes can be smelt from a long distance. The slaughterhouse waste they feed the catfish is strewn all around and show an extreme disregard for hygiene.