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FLOODPLAIN WETLAND-An Important Aquatic Resource For Enhancement

#Harshavardhan Dattatray Joshi And *Karankumar Kishorkumar Ramteke

#KAFSU, College of Fisheries, Manglore, Karnataka, India

*Central Institute of Fisheries Education, Seven Bunglows, Versova, Andheri (w.),

Mumbai-400061, Maharashtra, India

Corresponding Author's e-mail:

Attitudes to the management of natural resources are changing world-wide. These changes arise mainly from concerns about the state of the resources as they come under increasing pressure to satisfy a range of demands. Most important among these is the need for food, especially in tropical areas, which is forcing local populations to over exploit animals and plants. In addition, the sustainability of the living resources is threatened by impacts from other users by pollution and environmental modification. In general the capacity of present agricultural and industrial technologies to exploit and damage has far outstripped the capacity of societies to interpret, assimilate and control such changes. Efforts to do so show that present difficulties result from political, social and economic factors rather than from a lack of technological solutions. Concerns over these trends led to the convening of the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development in 1992 and the acceptance of its Agenda 21. This highlighted the problems and, through Government commitment, provided a moral framework and guidelines for the sustainable use of natural resources.

Floodplain river systems are both highly valuable and highly vulnerable

Despite their high values, floodplain river habitats are now among the fastest disappearing of all ecological systems.

Floodplain Rivers may be managed for many different objectives, but not all at once. Floodplain river systems are both highly valuable and highly vulnerable. Both of these characteristics are partly due to the impacts of external factors on the resource. Water flows from upstream bring both beneficial nutrients and potentially damaging pollutants. They are also partly due to the extensive and variable nature of the floodplain environment: this provides many opportunities for natural resource use, but also stimulates over-use and destruction when different users compete for access.

The high values of floodplain river systems are due to:

  • their high biological productivity (and high potential value of exploitable resources),

  • their high resilience to heavy exploitation levels and climate changes,

  • their high biodiversity, and

  • their multiple alternative livelihood opportunities.

Their high vulnerability is due to:

  • the often conflicting demands of different sectors (e.g. fisheries, agriculture, transport, forestry, water abstraction, water drainage, housing, industry....), and

  • negative impacts from upstream sources (e.g. pollution, deforestation...).

Inland waters of the Asian region (including rivers, lakes and reservoirs) are more heavily exploited than in either Africa or South America, and provide more than half of the world's production from inland capture fisheries (52.3% of the world catch of 6.5 million tonnes in 1990, according to FAO).

Well-managed fisheries may be highly productive, and may serve many different objectives. As shown below, different objectives will appeal to different levels of society. Unfortunately, not all of these objectives can be achieved at the same time. Managers must thus attempt to satisfy as many objectives as possible, and must recognise that their goals for the fishery, such as maintaining biodiversity or raising revenues, may not all be shared by fishing communities.

All fisheries depend on an interaction between the environment, the fish which depend on that environment, and the fishers who catch the fish. As illustrated below, the complexity of each of these factors is at a maximum for floodplain fisheries resources:

Resource Component

Simple fishery
(e.g. lake or marine trawl fishery)

Floodplain River Fishery


Stable over time

Seasonal fluctuations within year
Variable flooding between years

Single habitat

Many habitats
Habitats vary between localities

Resource mainly used for fishing

Strong competition for resource use


Single / few species

Multiple species
Variable behaviours and requirements


Single gear type

Numerous gear types

Commercial / capital intensive

Artisanal / labour intensive

Similar fishing communities

Different fishing communities

Few central landing centres

Many dispersed landing centres

This complexity may partly explain why relatively little attention has been given to floodplain river capture fisheries, compared to marine fisheries. A further factor may be the importance of local conditions on the effectiveness of different rules (including government regulations and traditional rules). This dependence prevents the use of a single, standard management approach for all floodplain resources. Though floodplain fisheries are, complex, this complexity is manageable, given the right management approach, and a clear sharing of responsibilities.

Floodplains are the most highly productive part of any river system. Their productivity derives from both the inputs of nutrients from upstream and the seasonal recycling of plants and animals which occurs with each 'flood pulse'. Though the main river channels supply the floodplain with nutrients, they are relatively unproductive themselves, due to their strong currents and shifting substrates. They may also bring down any negative impacts of poor management from upstream: both the quality and the quantity of water in rivers is vital for maintaining productivity. Reductions in water flows may be caused by diversion of water into upstream irrigation schemes. Dangerously high flooding and dry season water shortages may both be caused by deforestation, when water runs more quickly off logged hillsides. In large rivers, such impacts may flow across international borders.

High spatial and seasonal variability

The floodplain environment also varies seasonally, both within the year, and between different years. The annual cycle divides the year into periods of high fish productivity during the flood season, and relative inactivity and hardship during the dry season. Variability in the size and duration of these seasons affects the productivity of the floodplain and the effectiveness and profitability of the fishery. Variability in the timing of the seasons prevents the use of rigidly-timed management frameworks.

Floodplain modification

Floodplains are increasingly being modified on both a large scale and a small scale

Floodplains are increasingly being modified on both a large scale and a small scale. Governments are building dams, impoundments and polders to generate electricity and control flooding. Local communities are reclaiming floodplain land for farming, and digging fish pits to catch fish. River channels are becoming blocked by siltation. Though sometimes beneficial to other sectors, such changes can have significant impacts on fisheries productivity. Though the impact of individual small-scale modifications may be minor, their cumulative effect may be large.


Types of floodplain river fish

Migratory whitefish must be managed in much larger management units than local blackfish

Tropical floodplain river fish stocks may comprise over 200 different species of fish. Around 30 different fish species are commonly caught by floodplain fishers in any one locality. Each species clearly can not be managed individually, and it is usually necessary to group species into management units, or 'guilds'. For this purpose, floodplain river fish may be categorised in one or more of the following ways:

  • Migration patterns:
    local ('blackfish') and long-distance ('whitefish')

  • Feeding: predators, herbivores, others

  • Taxonomic groups: carps, catfish, perches, snakeheads etc.

  • Sizes: large, medium and small

  • Values: high, medium and low

From a management perspective, the first two categories (migration and feeding) are the most important. Fish migrate to find the best conditions for breeding, feeding and survival in different parts of the river system. Some 'whitefish' migrate thousands of kilometres up and down rivers, while other 'blackfish' may spend most of their lives in a single waterbody (see Figure 2.1). Blackfish species are able to tolerate the de-oxygenated conditions of the dry season in floodplain waterbodies while whitefish usually return to the main river or large lakes to survive. In Asian rivers, blackfish include species such as the snakeheads and the climbing perch (Anabas testudineus), while whitefish include many large carps and riverine catfish in addition to the valuable giant prawn (Macrobrachium rosenbergii). The alternative migration patterns of blackfish and whitefish determine whether they are vulnerable to many different fishing communities across the river catchment or to only one or a few local ones. To be effective, fisheries managers must regulate the activities of fishing communities across the full range of a species' distribution. Whitefish species must therefore be managed in much larger 'management units' than blackfish.

The combination of migration patterns and feeding behaviours determine which species are caught by which fishing gears, and at which times. Strongly migratory whitefish, for example are caught by barrier traps; predatory fish are caught by baited hooks; air-breathing blackfish are caught by fish drives in dry season floodplain pools. Multi-species floodplain fish stocks have many 'interactions' with the multi-gear fishery: every type of fishing gear always catches several types of fish, and every fish species is always caught by more than one fishing gear. Fish behaviours thus determine which species will be affected by management regulations on certain gears or certain seasons. The strong interactions between gears and fish mean that no single gear or fish species should be managed independently of the overall fishery.

Impact of fishing

Floodplain fish production is dependent on the maintenance of high habitat diversity, seasonal flooding with clean water, and clear channels for fish migrations

Managers must choose between high employment with low profits or less fishing for a higher quality catch

Asian river fisheries are highly productive, with average catches of around 100kg per hectare of floodplain. Surprisingly, this overall catch rate is not strongly affected by the amount of fishing. Though heavy fishing may over-exploit certain species, these may be replaced by other members of the multi-species stock (see top two graphs in Figure 2.2). As long as stocks are not completely wiped out (e.g. by fishing with poison), multi-species floodplain river fisheries can thus maintain high catch rates even with extraordinarily high levels of fishing effort.

Heavy fishing of floodplain fish stocks thus mainly affects the species of fish caught, not the total weight of the catch. Since fishers tend to exploit the most valuable fish species first, these are usually the first to decline. Though catches may remain high in a heavily exploited fishery, their value may eventually decline to the point where they are less than the costs invested in fishing for them. Managers must thus choose whether to allow heavy fishing for very little profit (e.g. where the objective is to generate employment or provide nutrition to poor people), or to restrain the amount of fishing to improve the types of fish caught and the overall value of the catch.

Management implications of floodplain communities and fishing

  • Fishing communities with existing management systems for local waterbodies provide strong

opportunities for management

  • River fisheries should be managed as a whole, not as individual gears

(management regulations affect thedistribution of the catch between gears, more than its total size)

  • Stock ownership regimes may be encouraged in appropriate waterbodies, to increase local incentives for long-term conservation

  • Hoovering gears must be managed to protect blackfish (ensure dry season survival)

  • Barrier gears must be managed to protect whitefish (ensure access to spawning grounds)

  • Floodplain livelihoods should be managed: fishing is not the only opportunity (talk with managers of other sectors in catchment; provide retraining, relocation etc.)

Sharing roles and responsibilities

Managing fisheries is mainly about managing the people who exploit the fishery

'Who should manage' can not be decided in isolation from 'how to manage'

The preceding sections have emphasised the high value of floodplain fisheries, their complexity and diversity, and their vulnerability to both over fishing and degradation from other sources. While there is clearly a need for good management to maintain productivity, this may seem an overwhelming task for these complicated systems. This section attempts to resolve this problem, by showing how the various management roles and responsibilities may be shared between a range of collaborators. This sharing may take place both hierarchically, as in a 'co-management' relationship between government, local people and other organisations, and spatially, between different geographic sub-units of the fishery. The remainder of this introduction briefly describes these two types of sharing, while the rest of Section 3 explores who may take on the various roles and responsibilities.

Hierarchical sharing: co-management

Co-management has been described as a 'partnership arrangement using the capacities and interests of the local fishers and the community, complemented by the ability of government to provide enabling legislation, enforcement and conflict resolution, and other assistance'. Co-management requires increased emphasis on communication and the use of flexible approaches to manage successfully, and is seen as a solution to some of the problems experienced by the 'top-down' use of standard technical solutions.

Spatial sharing: fishery management units

Management roles may be shared both hierarchically, between co-management partners and spatially, between different geographic sub-units of the fishery

Floodplain river fisheries are only part of the wider river environment. Interactions of the fishery with other sectors, such as agriculture, will usually need to be managed at a catchment-wide level. Whitefish species which migrate around the full river system must also be managed at this level. Such management activities are best handled by government, with their regional perspective and authority, and access to the departments responsible for other sectors. Local communities will have relatively minor roles at this level.

In contrast, local communities may play strong roles in the co-management of their own local blackfish species. For these species, management tools applied at a local level may result in improved local fish stocks and give direct benefits to the local community. Communities thus have the incentive to manage blackfish stocks, particularly where they have some form of 'use rights' to local spatial sub-units of the fishery. Such a sub-division of the fishery into management units would also provide the flexibility needed for effective local management.

Needed for floodplain fishery management:

Successful management requires that stakeholders take responsibility for a range of roles. Eighteen roles have been identified, although the list is not exhaustive. It is not expected that any one stakeholder group can do all of the roles or that each of the roles will take place at each level of spatial management unit. Fortunately, by using a co-management approach, the roles may be shared between many stakeholders, distributed according to who is most able to achieve them. Each of the roles is briefly discussed below.

Establish management objectives

No one stakeholder group will be able to take on all of the roles

fisheries may be managed for a wide range of objectives, and different stakeholders will often have different objectives. While government may wish to impose a general goal of sustainable resource use, the detailed specification of local objectives must be made by those local partners responsible for the management unit, within the principle of sustainability. Local people will not contribute effectively to the management of the fishery if they have not taken part in establishing objectives. The objectives at each level should be complementary. Where differences do exist, they cannot be ignored - stakeholders at the different levels should discuss the conflict in objectives and reach a compromise.

Ensure international responsibilities are taken into account

As floodplains are part of larger river systems that may cross country borders, management of their fisheries needs organisations capable of making decisions on wide geographical and sometimes political levels. Certain specific management tools, such as species introductions, may be constrained by international agreements.

Ensure the environment is protected

A healthy environment provides the basis for the high productivity of the fishery, but is highly vulnerable to overuse and degradation. Many floodplain activities have the potential to alter hydrology (i.e. the quality, quantity, timing and duration of annual floods) and water quality (e.g. pollution from agricultural pesticides or industrial effluents). Countries are often bound to protect natural resources through international agreements.

Assess the fishery

Management must be based on an understanding of the floodplain fishery, i.e. the environment, the fish, the fishing practices and the stakeholders. Assessments of flood patterns and migratory whitefish must be made at a catchment wide level while individual fishing grounds and black fish must be assessed at the local level. Tools such as stock assessment models may assist the technical appraisal of a fishery, while a range of rural appraisal methodologies (e.g. participatory rural appraisal, stakeholder analysis) may provide information on stakeholder involvement. Assessment of the fishery can also be undertaken by members of the fishing community on the basis of their own fishing experience.

Provide technical guidance (knowledge / expertise)

Floodplain fisheries are complex: many different fish are caught by many different gears, used by many different people. Technical understanding of this complexity may be gained through both traditional knowledge (often detailed and specific to a particular area) and scientific knowledge (important for a catchment perspective). Technical guidance contributes to the assessment of a fishery and the development and implementation of a management plan.

Conduct research - pure and applied

Research may contribute to the broad understanding of the floodplain system (e.g. pure scientific research of floodplain ecology or hydrology) or may be part of the daily management of a fishery (e.g. adaptive management where managers 'learn by doing' and so increase their understanding and ability to manage). Floodplain fisheries are often well understood from a technical point of view, but poorly understood with regard to social and institutional issues which also determine the success of management.

Provide a catchment perspective for management

Since the quality, quantity and timing of flood water provide the basis to floodplain fisheries production, managers must consider floodplains as part of entire river systems. Large-scale interventions such as dams, flood control measures and the cumulative effects of many small scale interventions carried out at local level may all affect floodplain fisheries. Catchment managers must balance advantages for one sector against the potential impacts on another (most often the fishery). Clearly, this is a cross-sectoral activity, so co-ordination and communication are critical for success. Migratory whitefish stocks also cross many community fishing grounds and thus require management at a catchment level.

Develop management plans

A management plan for a fishery may specify the objectives of management, the tools by which these objectives may be achieved, and the responsibilities of the different partners in the management process. The full development of a management plan may require each of the following steps:

  • identification of management units;

  • stakeholder analysis;

  • selection of management objectives;

  • selection of management tools;

  • assessment of stakeholder capacity;

  • collective agreement on responsibilities of each stakeholder and,

  • development of a legal and policy framework for management.

Setting rules for fishing (i.e. who can fish, which species, where, when and how)

The technical basis for fisheries management is the set of rules defining who can fish, which fish they can catch, and where, when and how they can catch them. The high variability of floodplains (water, fish, fishing gears, fishers) means that there are few rules which are universally applicable for all parts of the fishery. A flexible approach to selecting management rules is therefore essential. To improve the likelihood that fishing rules will be obeyed, they should be locally appropriate and made by the people who will be governed by them. Decisions on 'who can fish' are very important in terms of wider management objectives for the distribution of benefits. Appropriate setting of access rules provides a powerful way to direct benefits to a targeted group and ensure that vulnerable groups are not excluded.

Set rules for institutional support of fisheries management

An important, and often overlooked, part of fisheries management is the analysis of stakeholders, their inter-relationships and their potential influence on outcomes of management. As floodplain fisheries management must consider national, catchment, and more local elements of the resource, it requires the involvement of stakeholders at all of these levels. It should be clear and generally agreed which stakeholders will have responsibility for which roles. When different groups need to work closely together, it is helpful if the nature of their reationship is clarified.

Develop appropriate legislation to support fisheries management

Co-management means that the roles can be shared between stakeholders

Formal legislation should be used to give authority to the co-management partners for the management of their fishery. Legislation may provide critical recognition and support, particularly when attempting to limit access to the fishery. However, since the formal law-making process is slow and unwieldy, it will never be flexible enough for the year-to-year management of each local fishery. Formal laws on mesh sizes or small portable gears may also be almost impossible to enforce from above in dispersed, rural fisheries. National legislation for floodplain fisheries should therefore aim to provide an enabling framework within which more detailed, locally appropriate management can take place rapidly and independently, but still with the full backing of the law.

Provide mechanisms for conflict resolution

Fishery managers will often need to resolve conflicts, either between different fishers, or between the fishery and the other sectors that have a claim on floodplain resources (e.g. agriculture, transport, aquaculture etc). Conflict resolution involves three steps: discussion, adjudication and enforcement. These steps can take place formally, for example in a court with a judge deciding some legal penalty or informally, for example in a village meeting chaired by an experienced and respected fisher who decides on some social sanction.


Floodplain fishery management involves people and decisions at many different administrative levels (national, catchment and local), from many different sectors and from many floodplain communities. Effective co-ordination of all of these stakeholders will be a vital role to ensure that activities and responsibilities are complementary and do not conflict with each other. Experience in co-ordination may be quite limited in fisheries and so it is important to establish an agreed system within and between relevant stakeholder groups.


Effective communication will build trust between stakeholders and encourage their continued participation in the co-management partnership. Exchange of information between stakeholders in floodplain fisheries is important to develop, maintain and improve fisheries management. Good pathways of communication are necessary both within and between organisations. Many different methods of communication may be used, for example, posters, regular meetings, workshops, newsletters, study tours etc.

Provide training and extension

To be successful, the people involved in fisheries management will need operational, technical, social, financial, economic and management skills. Usually, the co-management team will not have all of these skills, so training will be required. Training can either be formal or informal, and may include focused workshops, visits, conferences, individual courses or on-the-job experience.


Monitoring is an essential role, needed to assess both the state of the fishery and the effectiveness of management. Fish stocks, fishing activities and outside environmental influences should thus be monitored in addition to the performance of the various stakeholders in carrying out their management roles. Feedback should be given to the stakeholders at regular intervals both to maintain their commitment to the co-management process, and to improve their effectiveness in their roles.


Rules are made to govern fishing activities so that fisheries management objectives are met. To be effective, rules must be enforced and a system must be established to deal with rule-breakers. The system may either be based in the legal system with fines being the main form of penalty, or be community based with a range of penalties from short term exclusion from a fishery, through to complete social exclusion. It is often beneficial to have penalties of variable severity, so that first offenders may be penalised less heavily than the more regular lawbreakers.

Fund fisheries management

Fishery management will require funding for a wide range of different activities, such as training, producing posters and newsletters, collecting monitoring data, resolving disputes, developing capacity and so on. Some management tools such as stocking or habitat restoration will also have capital or labour costs. Over time such costs should increasingly be recovered from the fishery itself, usually by charging fishers in some way for their access to fishing. This 'cost recovery' will be most successful where the access rules for the fishery are widely understood and agreed, and a transparent financial system is established to prove that funds are being used in the agreed manner. The use of credit schemes as a method of supporting fisheries management needs to be investigated. Credit may be particularly relevant where communities are taking on new roles and need to develop different skills.

How to Manage

Floodplain fishery management units

Co-management will present a major challenge both to government and other stakeholders: managers should start in a few local areas and build gradually on that experience.

Management units should be selected to achieve the maximum overlap between the range of authority of the management group and the distribution range of a fish stock.

River fishery management units

VMAs should be selected to achieve the maximum overlap between the range of authority of a social group (e.g. a village), and the distribution range of a blackfish stocks. Managers thus need information on the spatial distribution of four items: water-bodies, fish, fishing and existing management 'institutions'. Regional data on some of these subjects may be available from existing records of the fisheries departments and planning agencies; local data will need to be collected by interviewing key members of each fishing community. Training on effective community research techniques may be required for this process. The distribution and behaviour of fish species will usually be the most difficult information to determine, and it may be necessary to assume that floodplain regions will have some local blackfish stocks wherever there are significant dry-season water-bodies.

Identifying Catchment Management Areas (CMAs)

One or more 'Catchment Management Areas' (CMAs) will also be required for all river systems. CMA-level management would have three broad purposes:

  • monitoring and management of the impacts on the fishery from other sectors;

  • co-ordination of management activities in local VMA and IMA units, and communication of the successes and failures of alternative approaches between local units; and

  • management of migratory whitefish stocks.

Identifying Intermediate Management Areas (IMAs)

Simpler management tools are required for IMAs, due to the increased difficulties of roles such as monitoring, communication, coordination and enforcement in these larger areas.

Management opportunities for blackfish will be greatest in 'bottom-up' VMA-level management units. Whitefish may be primarily managed in the more 'top-down' CMA-level units. Between CMAs and VMAs, however, there may also be a range of 'Intermediate Management Areas' (IMAs), whose management needs and opportunities depend on the spatial relationships between water-bodies and communities.

Steps to Successful Management

A useful first stage should be for fishery departments to develop a partnership with organisations experienced in facilitating the development of community organisations. Village management units should then be promoted, initially in simpler situations where waterbody control is relatively undisputed or where traditional institutions already exist. Activities for resolving conflicts between VMAs, or for developing IMA-level management should come later.

National level (leadership, endorsement and legitimisation)

The main responsibilities of national level fishery managers (the fisheries ministries / directorate generals etc) is for the promotion of improved management systems, and the endorsement of activities at the lower management levels. Decentralised management can not proceed effectively until the rights of local people and agencies to manage is recognised and clearly stated in the legislation.

Catchment level (regional leadership and co-ordination)

Management activities at the catchment level provide the necessary leadership and co-ordination of the lower VMA and IMA management units (see table). Managers at the catchment level must also be responsible for the management of whitefish stocks in the CMA-level management units (see Section 5.3). Catchment-level management activities may be undertaken by any appropriate administrative level below national government. Some countries may have two or even three administrative levels which could each participate in these management activities at appropriate stages. Where spatial administrative units do not overlap exactly with river catchments (as will often be the case), catchment level management may need to involve collaboration between two or more administrative regions. Such collaboration may either involve the creation of a new catchment management forum, or the writing of a memorandum or understanding between the existing units.

Management unit level (management of fishery resources)

The management activities in the final table provide for the sustainable, long-term management of the fisheries in each management unit. They should be undertaken by the co-management partners of each CMA, IMA and VMA unit, according to their interests and capacities.

Reference: FAO FISHERIES TECHNICAL PAPER   384/1Management guidelines for Asian floodplain river fisheries

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