Notes on the freshwater fisheries of Ceylon

A. Willey

Table of Contents (ToC)

  1. Introduction [heading added by]
  2. The Barawe Fishery
  3. The Wala Fishery
  4. Ophiocephalus marulius
  5. Improvement of Inland Fisheries

[The following notes. are taken from Dr. Willey's preliminary account of the Inland Fisheries of Ceylon in the Administration Reports of 1908 and 1900.- Ed.]

Introduction [heading added]

The object of the inquiry is to obtain biological and, as far as may be possible, statistical information about the indigenous marketa,ble fishes, to devise measures for arresting a decline of the fisheries, and to introduce one or more useful species from abroad. As no records have been kept in former years, it is impossible to demonstrate that a progressive reduction in the amount of the catches is in fact taking place. There seems to be a general impression that this is the cage; and it is evident that the clearing of forests for plantation purposes must re-act upon the water systems of the cultivated districts by silting up the tributaries of the rivers. The more the country is brought under cultivation, by so much the more should attention be directed to the habits of the food-fishes. And this is about all that can be, and perhaps all that need be, said on the subject of the decline of the fisheries. The illegal use of dynamite and narcotic poisons is not a danger which threatens the entire fish-fauna; and it may be assumed that the steps Vrhioh are already taken to prevent the application of these objectionable methods of capturing fish are adequate.

The present investigation is mainly concerned with the fresh-water fisheries of the Western and the North-Central Provinces, the former being selected as typical of river fishing, the latter of tank fishing. In this part I shall refer chiefly to certain aspects of the fishing industry in the Western Province. In the first place, however, it is necessary to note that f or the understanding of this question it is important to realize at once and for all the essential economic difference which exists in Ceylon between sea fishing and estuarine fishing on the one hand and inland fishing on the other. Speaking generally, it may be said that there is no independent fresh-water fishing industry in Ceylon. What takes place is merely a collateral pursuit subservient to paddy cultivation and cattle raising. Sea and estuarine fishing is a main industry of the maritime districts; river and tank fishing is a collateral industry of the interior.


The Barawe Fishery

The Barawe reserve near Hanwella is a low-lying wooded tract, through which the Pusweli-ganga flows into the Kelani-ganga. After heavy rain the country is under water, and I have myself been compelled, in the month of May, to travel by boat for same distance down the high road from near the Hanwella rest hose. Hanwella is a good type of inland fishing station, Peaople said to belong to the 'Padduwa' caste being more or less permanently engaged in fishing by various methods; and the produce is brought into the village bazaar for sale in impoverished markets of the roadside..

On the Pusweli-ganga, upwards of a mile from the resthouse, the Barawe line-fishermen work singly from very small log boats called 'mas marana oruwa,' from which they catch excellent food-fishes, such as the walaya ( Wallago attu ), telliya ( Mastacembellus armatus ), and moda ( Lates calcarifer ), besides several species of the carp family ( Cyprinidae ). Fishes caught in the water-courses are called «ela malu» in contrast with «weli malu» which are taken from inundated fields. Of the latter, the lula ( Ophiocephalus striatus ) id the most important, and the batakola-telliya ( Rhynchobdella aculeata ) 1 one of the most interesting. They also capture in baskets great quantities of small cyprinoid fish called saliya ( Amblypharyngodon melettina ); females of this species, three inches in total length, are egg-laden in December. In the lhivetiya-ela, an arm of the Pusweli-ganga, a portion was fenced off at either end from the main stream in December, 1907, and I saw about thirty men, women, and children paddling about in the muddy water, each provided with a large conical hand basket («eswattiya»), with which they scooped up small fishes, transferring them to bags carried on their backs, occasionally also capturing a large river prawn.

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The Wala Fishery

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Wala-fishing goes on in places where no other fishing is available, and is one of the most prolific sources of fish supply for villiages throughout the low-country, including the immediate environs of Colombo.

At Tebuwana on the Kalu-ganga there is no river fishing worth mentioning, but a oonsiderable wala-fishery takes place during the dry weather which follows -.floods. The ponds contain stagnant water, and by repeated baling out of muddy water deep pools are formed in them, where fish accumulate sometimes in large numbers. I inspected one such pond, and witnessed the operation of emptying it; it was called the Kohila-wali, because fornierly an edible root (kohila) grew where the pond now is, some still remaining on the banks. The digging out of the yams and the subsequent flooding and scooping out, of fish from the mud at certain spots has ma three deep holes, in,one.of which there wore signs of abundant fish. The baling took place on january 25. They commenced by deepening an efferent channel and allowing the surface water to flow away through it; then they dammed it up and started baling the water over the dam. In this cue the baling was done by four men working two «hal-kula» each provided with two pairs of flexible handles held by a man on each side with both hands. The men swing the baskets between them and workaway for three hours or more. The catch they said was not up to the average; it consisted chiefly of madaya ( Ophiocephalus punctatus ), kavaiya (some were egg-laden), agura ( Clarias magur ), a few hunga ( Saccobranchus fossilis ), lula, ankutta, and batakola-telliya. Each hunga was knocked on the head before, being taken out, on account of the dangerous pectoral spines. The total weight, of fish caught was about 22 lb., and the the local marketwas put at Re 1.50 only, an absurdly low figure, 2 but then it was not going to be sold for cash. As it was, the division of the spoil gave rise to much bickering, and one woman apparently refused to be comforted.

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A lethal weapon sometimes employed along these rivers is the «kaduwa» -consisting of a series of iron barbs riveted to an iron shaft. One in use on the Magura-ganga had 19 barbs placed close together, so as to form a toothed blade about a foot long; the handle, 2 feet long, was secured by a rope. The man who held it was waiting near some rocks for an «ara» ( Ophiocephalus marulius ) to appear. If he should succeed in striking a large fish, it might swim away with the implement were it not secured by a line after the manner of a harpoon.

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Ophiocephalus marulius

This fish, which has been mentioned above, attains a larger size than does its relative the lula, reaching a weight of 12 to 15 lb. Colonel Gordon Reeves infoms me that some small fishes called «gunarow» 3 to 4 inches long, were sent to him in May from Rajjammaana on the Amba-ganga, which he took to be the young of O. marulius . He liberated them into his stew pond at «Wiltshire» Matale. They we described as having « large irregular blotches of claret colour on their upper parts, more especially towards the tail .» The exact identification of these young fishes would be interesting, as nothing is known about the reproduction of O. marulius .


Improvement of Inland Fisheries

Pisciculture means the preservation of the spawn and fry of fishes, the stripping or expressing of ova from mature fishes and their artificial fertilization, the prohibition of certain methods of fishing, and the regulation of existing fisheries in tanks and rivers.

There are many instructive analogies between agriculture and pisciculture sufficient to justify the conjunction of a Board of Agriculture and of Fisheries. The variations in the growth of plants according to quality and elevation of soil is comparable with the growth of fishes in correlation with the size and latitude of rivers. The quantity of fish which can be raised as food in a given bulk of water depending upon the area and depth, but above all upon the usually unknown richness or poverty of the primary food supply in the water, is comparable with the quantity of vegetable food which can be raised per acre of ground; and the liability of cultivated fishes and plants to fungoid and other pests is another common character. Besides these points of correspondence, there are other contrasts which should not be lost sight of, e.g., the difficulty of transporting the ova of fish as contrasted with the ease with which the seeds of plants can be carried about; the expense of maintaining a nursery of young fishes as compared with the automatic working of a nursery of young plants; the migratory habits of grown fishes as compared with the stationary habits of grown plants. When a thousand selected plant seeds are put into the ground, a thousand seedlings may germinate on the spot and be subsequently planted out; but when a thousand fish try are emptied into a river or tank, they «swim gay away» and unless very particular attention is paid to them they may never be heard of again.

Prohibition of certain methods of fishing and the estsblishment of close seasons, for certain fishes are difficult measures, which can be based upon a close familiarity with local conditions. Each system and each tank area have to, be treated separately on ow merits. Illegitimate fishing, such a a the use of poison and dynamite and the wholesale damming of water-courses, does not usually take place in the vicinity of towns, but in more or less remote tributaries. On the other hand, the destruction of young fishes in paddy fields is a matter which calls for special attention, and reference should be made on this subject to the Report on Pisciculture in South Canara, by H. S. Thomas , Collector of South Canara, 1870, a copy of which has been procured through Governmentt at my recommendation for the Museum Library. The point which requires comprehensive discussion is the destination of the waste water from paddy fields. If this water flows back into a river, or into an irrigation canal, the inundated paddy fields act as an efficient nursery for young fishes, provided that they are allowed free scope and are not trapped prematurely. Under such conditions a system of paddy fields is the model for a combined hatchery, nursery, and stock pond.

Artificial fertilization and hatching require hatcheries and stock ponds which would be useful for re-stocking, with due discrimination, both village tanks and city tanks. Replenishing the supply of fishes means turning immature fishes into fishable waters, where they can continue to grow to a marketable size; unfortunately no size is too smal lfor curry. But if Government undertook this work, somebody would have to pay and be paid. Recourse to artificial fertiliization may be unnecessary in certain cases where the season and localities of natural spawning are known. I have published in Spolia Zeylanica , Part XXIII., December, 1909, an account of my observations on the nesting habits of lula , the principal fresh-water food-fish of Ceylon, though not the largest. I am now in a position to add that an allied species of Ophiocephalus , also used extensively as food and as bait for larger fishes, namely, Ophiocephalus punctatus , called «madaya» or «mada-karaya» makes its nest amongst inshore rushes, though without the definite clearing that lula prepares, and in such spots, where there is an abundance of microscopic food for the ensuing fry, it deposits pale amber-coloured eggs with a single glistening oil-globule, which float at the surface like the eggs of lula, from which they could hardly be distinguished unless their parentage was known. I had seen a shoal of very young fry of «madaya» acpmpanied by their parents in a paddy field «wala» at Bellana, near Matugama in the Kalutara District, in April, 1908 ; and on October 29, 1909, I saw a nest of the floating eggs in the Hunupitiya, arm-of the Colombo lake, behind Bishop's College, close to the shore, where there was a great quantity of the spherical aggregates of the colonial infusorian, Synura . I brought away some of the eggs and hatched them out, feeding the fry, after the yolk had been absorbed, on lake plankton, which I collected myself.

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Lula is a predatory fish with excellent qualities. As mentioned above, it can be dried when obtained in superabundance; a statement to the effect that lula is unsuitable for salting or drying in Spolia Zeylanica , Vol. V., 1908, p. 145 , &c., requires to be modified; the practice of drying is carried out locally, but not generally. Other fishes in Ceylon which are worth cultivating on account of their value an nutriment are also predatory. There seems to be no non-predatory, nest-building species in Ceylon of equal value with the lula.

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1 I recorded this species from Ceylon for the first time in Nature , Vol. 77, 1908, page 345. Back

2 Of course, this only applies to one small wala; the total value of the wala catches in a given district would be something considerable; and the same wala may be baled out three of four times a year. Back

Acknowledgement and Source(s)

This article was published under the above title in: Spolia Zeylanica . VII, pt 26, December 1910, pp 88-105.

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