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Kashmir: What's behind the decline of fish species?

December 24, 2022
topics: Conservation
by: Nusrat Sidiq
located in: India
tags: fish, Kashmir, mass extinction, mining, pollution

Illegal riverbed mining in Indian-administered Kashmir has grown rampant, destroying local ecosystems and pushing local and foreign fish species away.

The riverine ecology of Indian-administered Kashmir is staring at a disaster as unabated heavy mechanised mining in the region's riverbeds is killing the habitat and breeding grounds of different species of fish.

As a result of riverbed mining, experts now caution of a loss of endemic and exotic fish, a threat to the agriculture and a growing risk of flash floods.

The usage of heavy machinery like JCBs and cranes to extract sand, gravel or boulders from streams is directly impacting the habitat and ecosystem of water bodies, they say. 

"For many years, mining activities have rampantly been going on here under the nose of the administration, which unfortunately remains an unregulated affair," Ajaz Rasool, a former hydraulic engineer who worked on the Wular conservation project in Kashmir, told FairPlanet.

Rasool pointed out that some locals from Budgam District raised concerns over nighttime mining activities in the Doodh Ganga Nallah - the main feeding channel for Hokersar Wetland in the region's RAMSAR site.

He cautioned that if mining activities are not regulated or streamlined under the Jammu and Kashmir mining rules, it will be impossible to find a native fish in the rivers a few years from now.

"Not only fish but our agriculture, wildlife, will bear the consequences," Rasool said. "It will be a man-made killing and nothing could ever make it recover."

Around 20,000 tons of fish are produced annually  Kashmir, with over 17,000 families dependent on it for their livelihood.

"It will be a man-made killing and nothing could ever make it recover."

Livelihood takes a hit

However, excessive mining of rivers and streams has caused a huge setback for fisher communities in the region.

Many families have started to relocate to other places in order to find a new source of income, while some are still trying to make ends meet.

"There is hardly any good number of fish, it has all vanished, thanks to the official apathy," Ghulam Nabi, a fisherman from North Kashmir's Baramulla district, told FairPlanet.

A book published in 1838 by German biologist Janon Jakob Heckel records the presence of 16 fish species in Kashmir, 12 of which were of the local snowtrout genus- Schizothorax.

However, following years of negligent environmental consciousness, local fish species have considerably declined or gone extinct.

Feroz Ahmad Bhat, an assistant professor and head of fisheries resource management at the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology (SKUAST), told FairPlanet that only five species of the local genus can be found now.

"Even their numbers are dwindling," he said.

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 sector and the livelihoods of those who work in it. 

Heavy mechanised mining and its consequences

The use of heavy machinery to extract minerals from rivers and streams is greatly impacting the riverine ecology, according to environmental activists.

Raja Muzaffar Bhat, an environmental and information freedom activist, said that illegal and unregulated mining is not only killing fish in the region - but it will deplete all mineral resources.

"There are hundreds of trucks taking out mineral resources from our rivers and streams with the use of heavy machinery, which is against the rules laid down in the mining Act [of] 2016 that clearly says that the usage of heavy machinery is prohibited," Bhat said. "Yet the administration is passing the buck from one department to another."

A National Green Tribunal, an environmental court, in September this year halted the mining operations in Shaliganga stream in Budgam district on the same lines after an appeal was filed by Bhat stating that the stream is already overexploited by the heavy illegal mining.

The Tribunal revoked the environmental clearance given to a private construction company and asked the government to safeguard the environment.

The ruling said, "Mining shall be done manually minimally supported by semi- mechanized methods. Heavy machinery like JCBs, Excavators/L&T hydraulic excavators etc. should not be allowed. Emphasis should be given to employment of locally available labour force to address the socio-economic concerns of the locals." 

But Bhat believes that this step will not suffice to save an environment that degrades with each passing day.

He noted that the presence of heavy extract and crushing machines at the riverbeds and streams is decimating the ecology of the water bodies.

"These machines are used for deep mining, which alters the habitat of the flora and fauna in the water bodies and then after extraction they are crushed in stone crushing machines, which again not only damage the habitat but also pollute the water."

Arbitrary approvals

Since February last year, the government of Jammu and Kashmir region has been auctioning large stretches of riverbeds for mineral extraction. 

For the first time since the abrogation of Kashmir's special status in 2019, these contracts were given to foreign-based companies, which further stressed the region's already volatile waterbodies.

Under the Jammu and Kashmir Fisheries Act, 2018, all rivers, streams, lakes, ponds, springs, reservoirs, canals etc. belong to the Jammu and Kashmir region.

The act stipulates that the department of geology and mining has to consult the fisheries department when issuing permission for mineral extraction. However, this has not happened according to the department.

Director State Fisheries Irshad Ahmad Shah told FairPlanet that their power has been limited to act on the ground against the violators conducting illegal mining or using heavy machinery.

"We are not having any power to curtail such activities, as this power lies with other administrative departments."

He further stated that had the fisheries Act of 2018 been implemented, the department could have acted on the issue. "We have no say for now," he added.

"If the government doesn't stop it now, I think in the coming years there will be huge environmental challenges that we all will be facing to survive," activist Bhat said.

Fishery experts from Kashmir say they warned the authorities about the sanctioning of mass mining activities in Kashmir - but that their calls fell on deaf ears.

"You can't do anything when the government itself is permitting mining on rivers and streams," Yasoob Dar, a fish farmer, told FairPlanet.

Image by imad clicks.

Article written by:
IMG_20210320_122251
Nusrat Sidiq
Author
India
Experts now caution of a loss of endemic and exotic fish, a threat to the agriculture and a growing risk of flash floods due to riverbed mining.
“For many years, mining activities have rampantly been going on here under the nose of the administration, which unfortunately remains an unregulated affair."
Fishery experts from Kashmir say they warned the authorities about the sanctioning of mass mining activities in Kashmir - but that their calls fell on deaf ears.
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