Gangtok: When the first Covid wave last year put a stop to travel, among those who were hit were property-owners dependent on tourists for income. One such entrepreneur was 28-year-old Kesang Dorji Bhutia, who owns a homestay in Sribadam, a village in Sikkim. In desperate need of an alternate source of income, Bhutia turned his attention to marketing rainbow trout that many in his village were already engaged in rearing.
“People were looking for nutritious food to build a stronger immunity during the pandemic, and many in my village were already engaged in rearing rainbow trout, a fish that is known to be good for health,” explained Bhutia.
The enterprising Bhutia took to social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram to reach more customers. “Initially I would get orders for home deliveries from villages around Sribadam, and gradually from Gangtok and Namchi. At times, I would even get orders from Siliguri in West Bengal,” said Bhutia, a political science graduate from Calcutta University.
While he now owns a retail shop for rainbow trout in Ranipool, a suburban town near Gangtok, he has also helped set up a social media network, connecting rainbow trout farmers in his village to buyers from across Sikkim. It was the growing demand for nutritious food among people that gave him the idea of tapping a wider customer base.
“I saw this as an opportunity to use the internet and sell the fish to the common people,” said Bhutia.
On 21 November, World Fisheries Day, the Directorate of Fisheries, Sikkim, felicitated Bhutia for his efforts and enterprise in boosting rainbow trout sales from his village.
Bhutia’s fellow villagers too are all praise for his efforts.
“Prior to the online system, farmers had to wait for customers to place their orders and deliver the fish personally. But thanks to this network, Kesang takes bulk orders for farmers and distributes it himself. The process of selling has become easier,” said Kal Bahadur Gurung, a trout farmer from Sribadam.
Sribadam has been in news for its rainbow trout farming for a while now. According to the state fisheries department, the village has been foremost in rainbow trout farming in Sikkim.
A nondescript village 110 kilometres from state capital Gangtok, Sribadam is located 7,500 feet above sea level, with many fresh water sources. Because the village is set at a high altitude, the water here is cold, making it suitable for rainbow trout farming, those engaged in rearing the fish explained.
Trout farming has helped improve the economic condition of the people of the village, as also that of many in the rest of the state.
From foreign waters
Historically, rainbow trout (Oncorynchus mykiss) is native to North America, North Asia and Europe. It was introduced India in the middle of the 18th century during the colonial rule over the Himalayan and Peninsular regions, where cold and flowing clean water are available in sufficient quantity, supplied by the high-altitude, unique mountain ranges of the country’s Himalayan and Southern Peninsula areas.
According to available reports, apart from Sikkim, trout culture is common in Kashmir, Arunachal Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Manipur, Meghalaya, Nagaland, and to some extent, in North Bengal.
In 2014, the rainbow trout farmers in Sribadam set up the Sribadam Rainbow Trout Rearing Cooperative Society, an association of more than 50 fishermen and women.
“Following the success of trout farming in the village, many here have started rearing rainbow trout. Of late, however, some farmers in Sribadam have also started rearing grass carp,” said Gurung, president of the association.
The state fisheries department, meanwhile, is also promoting the production of rainbow trout in the state.
Gurung himself has five fish tanks and a hatchery and is only engaged in rearing rainbow trout. The fish tanks were built under a government beneficiary scheme. “I got financial support of Rs 1.2 lakh in instalments from the Sikkim fisheries department to build a cement pond of 17m x 2 m x 1.5m size, along with 2,000 trout fingerlings (hatchlings) and 800 kilograms of fish feed,” said the 39-year-old Gurung.
According to the state’s Department of Fisheries, the total trout production from the state during 2020-21 was 150 metric tonnes.
“Farmers in all four districts of Sikkim are engaged in rearing rainbow trout for commercial purposes, but farmers from the West district, especially in the Sribadam village, are spearheading the trend,” said Surendra Bhandari, a range officer at the fisheries department in Gangtok. “Anyone from Sikkim with land to make fish tanks and constant supply of clean water can apply for government help for rainbow trout farming.”
More demand, more money
According to the rainbow trout growers in the area, demand has gone up in past few years. The main reason for this, according to them, is a growing awareness about the nutritional benefits of the fish.
The trout growers’ belief is borne out by doctors in the region.
“I think people in the state have become conscious of their eating habits due to the pandemic and want to include food that can help improve immunity. Rainbow trout is a good source of protein and good fats, this could be a probable reason for the demand of this fish,” said Khushboo Choudhary, a clinical dietician based in Siliguri.
“I got two queries from patients in Sikkim in the past about adding rainbow trout to their diets. My first patient was a pregnant woman, to whom I recommended eating the fish, as it helps in the development of a child’s brain and also gives strength to a would-be mother. But I didn’t allow my other patient — who has renal issues — to eat rainbow trout, as it has a high potassium content,” she added.
On an average, the fish sells for Rs 1,000 per kg, said Bhutia, adding, “there is so much demand for the fish that at times we are unable to meet it”.
According to Gurung, he made Rs 8-10 lakh last year (2020) just by selling rainbow trout. His average annual earnings from selling rainbow trout are about Rs 7-8 lakh.
The business has also helped many women in the village become financially self-reliant and also add to the family income.
“There are a few women in the village cooperative who are financially supporting their families by rearing and selling rainbow trout,” said Samdup Bhutia, who started fish farming in 2012 and was also the recipient of the Northeast progressive farmers award in 2016. The award for successful trout farmers is given by the Central University of Agriculture, Department of Fisheries, Tripura.
“It’s a great feeling to be a part of this trout rearing culture in my village. I am able to contribute to the family budget and that makes me feel independent,” said 50-year-old Ashmit Lepcha, a fish farmer from Sribadam.
Lepcha, who started rearing trout in 2014, is helped in the business by her two daughters, both university students. “We sometimes have tourists who come to our farms looking for trout cooked in the local style. This has helped my family start a homestay,” she said.
In 2019-20, Lepcha claims she earned Rs 8 lakh from the produce of a single pond — 1,500 kg of fish.
One issue farmers want fixed
The rainbow trout farmers in Sribadam have one grouse they want the government to fix.
“Rainbow trout farmers of the region can do better if they get fish feed at cheaper rates, which can help them to lower the production cost by a substantial amount and also make the fish available at a cheaper cost to the public,” said Kesang Bhutia.
“Farmers are currently buying fish feed at the rate of Rs 160-180 per kilo from an Andhra Pradesh-based fish feed company, so the transportation cost makes the feed expensive for the farmers which propels the prices, putting it outside the common man’s reach,” he added.
Bhandari of the fisheries department said the government has set up two fish feed production units in the state, at Rangpo in East district and Rothak in West district. “However, due to some technical problems, we are yet to make it fully functional. The units should start production soon,” he said.
Currently, the average rearing cost for 1 kg of rainbow trout is Rs 500, said farmers. Investments include building the tanks, and buying the trout hatchlings.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)