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Kashmir: down to the last fishermen

June 01, 2022
topics: Pollution
by: Suhail Bhat
located in: India
tags: fishing, fishing industry, Kashmir, water pollution

Kashmir is facing interlocking environmental, food and economic crises as its shrinking, highly polluted lakes and rivers are being depleted of fish stocks.

Fish species indigenous to the crystal clear glacial waters of Kashmir, Central Asia and Western China - such as snow trout and schizothorax - have vanished from the water bodies of Kashmir due to excessive pollution and the introduction of invasive species of high market value.

Experts claim that out of the 13-15 species of snow trout found in the water of this Himalayan region, nearly five have gone extinct, with three more on the brink of extinction. Other native fish species, such as Botia Birdi, have gone extinct in water bodies due to anthropogenic activities and the destruction of their breeding or feeding grounds.

Snow trout, locally known as Alegads, can be found in both standing and flowing water bodies throughout the valley. The five species of snow trout native to the region are Schizothorax esocinus (Chirru), Schizothorax curvifrons (Satter gad), Schizothorax niger, Schizothorax plageostomus and Schizothorax labiatus.

The fishing sector is an important part of Jammu and Kashmir's economy, contributing 23 percent of the state's GDP alongside agriculture. However, the extinction of these fish species poses a threat not only to the environment, but also to the food industry and the livelihoods of those who work in it. 

Fishermen in despair

Mohammad Abbas, a 45-year-old fisherman who has been catching fish for a living since he was a child, claims that his catch has decreased by 60 percent over the years. "I used to catch around eight to 10 kilogrammes of fish, but now I only catch one kilogramme," he told FairPlanet.

Abbas said he is having difficulty running his household due to the sharp decrease in the fish population, which has impacted his daily earnings. He attributed the decline in population to unchecked pollution of water bodies that serve as fish habitats. 

"It would not be long before River Jhelum is reduced to nothing more than a sewage drain. The waste is heavily contaminated. More than fishe, my net is filled with empty plastic bags and polythene," he said.

He confirmed that fish such as Botia Birdi, locally known as Raam Gurn, are no longer found  there and that other species have gone extinct as well. "These fish thrived in clean water, and some of them could be easily spotted in shallow waters during the summer. However, there are only a few left now," he said.

He claimed that his meager earnings have discouraged his children from continuing in this trade and that he is now the family's last fisherman. "My children have already said 'no' to this line of work. I would have switched as well, but I do not know anything else," he said.

Ecosystem at risk

According to Owaise Iqbal Dar, an Ichthyologist, pollution resulting from human activities is causing fish populations to decline in Kashmir's water bodies. "There were around 13 species of snow trout in the past, but now there are only five, and eight have gone extinct. Of the remaining five species, two are rapidly dwindling," he told FairPlanet.

Iqbal Dar explained that a variety of factors, including climate change, excessive water pollution, the introduction of invasive species and deforestation, are putting stress on local fish species and ultimately lead to their extinction. "Every organism has a role to play in the ecosystem, and if one organism goes extinct, it has an impact on the entire ecosystem," he said.

"They lay eggs in shallow water, but excessive mining has destroyed the riverbed," he added, explaining that excessive sand mining has destroyed the fish's breeding and feeding grounds.

Iqbal Dar further stated that invasive species, such as carnivorous rainbow trout, have had an impact on their population because they cannot compete with them. "The invasive species eat the eggs of these fish, affecting their population." 

He claimed that these invasive species are affecting indigenous species in the same way that fish species like Talpia have been introduced into water bodies around the world and caused indigenous species to become extinct.In Kashmir, he said, exotic species such as carp, which were introduced to the valley in the 1960s to increase fish yield, have resulted in the extinction of native species.

Wastewater dumping

In the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir there are approximately 92 urban local bodies, none of which has a waste treatment plant, meaning that all municipal waste is dumped into these water bodies, polluting them.

"Unfortunately, the majority of the waste is dumped either near or in these bodies of water, including rivers, lakes, and wetlands, causing water pollution," Mohammad Sidiq, an official at the Kashmiri government's Department of Fisheries, told FairPlanet. 

He further stated that the valley is home to a number of freshwater lakes and streams, but that they are all threatened by encroachment. "On the banks of these water bodies, residential colonies and commercial complexes are being built." 

Sidiq added that even government offices are being built on these bodies of water, which he said was a wrong move. As a result, all sewage is dumped into water bodies. 

"For example, many hotels that have been built on the ladder stream, which is known for having snow trout and which runs through the picturesque Pahalgam, have had an impact on the fish population," he said.

The valley is known for its delicious apples, but pesticides used in apple orchards have wreaked havoc on aquatic life. 

"Starting in March, we spray a lot of chemical fertilizers on these apple orchids. From March to July, each orchid receives ten to fifteen sprays, and the valley receives a lot of rain. Several times, they are washed away into small streams that lead to larger bodies of water, where they have an impact on aquatic life. It is extremely dangerous." Sidiq said.

"The issue is that the government has taken no action, and no research has been conducted to determine how much pesticide is present in water bodies and how it affects the fish population."

Ichthyologists and environmentalists claim that excessive use of these pesticides and herbicides causes eutropphication, which is the excessive growth of nutrients on the water surface. This results in a dense growth of algae on the water's surface, blocking sunlight from reaching the flora and fauna and making it difficult for fish like snow trout to survive. 

Image by Sameer Mushtaq. 

Article written by:
Suhail Bhat Picture
Suhail Bhat
Author
India
Mohammad Abbas untangles fish from his net in his boat in Indian-administered Kashmir.
Mohammad Abbas untangles fish from his net in his boat in Indian-administered Kashmir.
© Sameer Mushtaq
A sand mining operation in Kashmir\'s Jehlum River, which is home to a variety of fish species. Excessive sand mining in the region has decimated fish breeding and feeding grounds, resulting in their extinction.
A sand mining operation in Kashmir's Jehlum River, which is home to a variety of fish species. Excessive sand mining in the region has decimated fish breeding and feeding grounds, resulting in their extinction.
© Sameer Mushtaq
A fisheries department official in Indian-administered Kashmir holds a tout fish at a local fish farm. The introduction of this species into local streams has had an impact on the native fish population.
A fisheries department official in Indian-administered Kashmir holds a tout fish at a local fish farm. The introduction of this species into local streams has had an impact on the native fish population.
© Sameer Mushtaq
Fish swimming underwater at a local farm in Indian-administered Kashmir.
Fish swimming underwater at a local farm in Indian-administered Kashmir.
© Sameer Mushtaq
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