At his organic fish farm,A Ravichandran hopes to revive some nearly-lost native freshwater varieties
“It has a protruding sharp fin on the dorsal side that can pierce your hands. So, catching it was a difficult art that few mastered. Eating it was easier though, as it had a single central bone that came off easily.” Fish farmer A Ravichandran describes the native catfish ( nattu keluthi), as we walk through thorny shrubs in Arittapatti village, near Madurai.
The sandy loam soil sinks beneath our shoes as we tread over footprints of cattle and peacock feathers. A set of seven rocky hillocks comes into view once we ascend the lofty bund of an irrigation tank, of which only a small collection of murky water remains, while the rest of the water body is a vast expanse of dry land.
In this little water is where Ravichandran has been growing over half-a-dozen varieties of native freshwater fish for six months. “Gone are the days, when freshly caught fish from the village pond was a part of our daily lunch. Many water bodies have dried up and those that hold water are let on lease for fish farming,” shares Ravichandran.
“Those that are cultured in farms are grown in small pits of 30x40 feet that are lathered with chuna and the fish are fed chemicals to make them gain maximum weight in a short period of time. If grown organically, many fish varieties take over six months to attain a weight of 250 grams, but with chemical feeds, they gain well over half a kilo in just three months,” says the 35-year-old.
“Organic farming is much about what you feed the fish. I let native shrubs and plants fester and putrefy in the water, and the fish feed on them. Leaves of Tanner’s Cassia ( avaram ) and hopbush ( virali ) are ideal,” shares Ravi, who also runs Kayal, an informal group of like-minded aspiring organic fish farmers in Southern Tamil Nadu. He adds, “Drying of water bodies is just one reason for losing native fish. The fish eggs remain dormant in the slush and mud and once it rains again, they hatch back to life. However, the real problem is with agriculture done on dry tank beds during summer, and the usage of pesticides and chemical fertilisers that kills micro-nutrients and fish eggs in the soil.”
“Organically grown fish are not only healthier but also tastier,” says Ravi. “The keluthi bought at the market may be plump and fleshy but people who buy it from organic farms may realise the difference.”
Ravi, who has done a five-year study on the region’s freshwater fish, says, “My idea is to put them back where they belong — in natural ponds and as healthy food on plates.”