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Few fish left in anglers’ paradise

Himalayan rivers were once famous among anglers. But in Kashmir fish populations are dwindling and some species unique to the region are on the verge of extinction, experts tell Athar Parvaiz.

In the rivers of the Indus basin growing pollution, sedimentation of the riverbeds, conversion of large chunks of shallow areas into agricultural and horticultural land, and the excessive extraction of sand and gravel from the river and stream beds have led to a massive decline in fish resources in the Jhelum, one of the major tributaries of the Indus, over the past 15 years.

Peak water flow has changed too. The rivers of the Indus basin are more dependent on glacier melt than any other river basin in the Himalayas. Now, with the glaciers melting earlier and earlier in the year due to global warming, the peak water flow season is advancing too. Native fish species are unable to adjust.

“At the time of spawning, during spring, the streams are generally full of water because of melting of snow and the broods of migrating fish try to go as far upstream as possible and lay eggs in shallow areas that have sandy or gravelly bottom,” said Abdul Rehman Yousuf, Kashmir’s renowned specialist in freshwater rivers and lakes.

Now with the peak water flow season advancing, there is very little water left in the summer, especially in the shallow streams, Yousuf pointed out. Many of these shallow areas now dry up, “so the fingerlings get trapped in pools of leftover water and ultimately perish after finding no access to the main stream.”

On top of that, excessive and unchecked use of pollution-causing herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers that make their way to the streams and rivers is the main threat to the survival of all fish species, the expert told thethirdpole.net.

Yousuf’s list of fish species that are under “tremendous pressure” includes the rama gurun (botia birdi), once abundant and even caught in commercial quantities, but has now almost disappeared. Another is the algaad (schzothoraxniger), found only inKashmir and whose number have also dropped alarmingly low.

Pollution eradicates river life

“The usage of pesticides and herbicides has picked up enormously in recent years while the liquid and solid waste pollution is getting out of control,” said Yousuf. Experiments carried out by him and his team have revealed that the local fish species are highly sensitive to pollutants. “Their larvae or juveniles get poisoned by these pollutants and die.”

Dilgeer Mehdi, another expert who has done detailed research on Jhelum and its tributaries said that the larvae of insects, which are a natural feed for the fish, also die due to pollution.

The decline in fish resources is caused by heavy pollution, gravel-digging, sand extraction, sedimentation and illegal fishing techniques used by fishermen, according to Mehdi. “In 1950, the fish catch was 3.50 grams per person per hour which has now reduced to 1.50 to 2.70,” Mehdi told thethirdpole.net.

Jammu and Kashmir’s State Pollution Control Board (SPCB) has warned the government about the dangers of heavy environmental pollution in the Kashmir valley and its direct impact on the lakes and the Jhelum, the major breeding ground of native species of fish inKashmir.

A recent survey conducted by the SPCB found that more than 40 million litres of untreated liquid waste from Srinagarcity alone, as well as 350 metric tonnes of solid waste, get dumped into Kashmir’s freshwater bodies, including the Jhelum and the famous Dal Lake of Srinagar.

The records of Jammu and Kashmir’s Agriculture Department reveal that Kashmiri farmers used 5 million kilograms of pesticides and herbicides in their farms in 2010, and 20% more than that in 2011, according to Ghulam Mohi-u-Din Rather, assistant director for agriculture.

There are also some biotic factors responsible for the decline. “In the early twentieth century two exotic species, salmo trutta fario [brown trout] and oncorhynchus mykiss [rainbow trout], were introduced in the Jhelum and its tributaries to attract the anglers from the world over,” Yousuf said. “But the introduction of these species was not based on any scientific study which would have assessed their compatibility with the native species.”

Both these trout species became established in the upper reaches of the tributaries in the areas which served as the breeding grounds for the native Schizothorax species (snow trout). “The result was the gradual dwindling of the native species as their eggs and young ones became easy prey for the new entrants, both of which are typical carnivorous organisms.”

Deforestation and development erodes fish breeding ground

Yousuf also cites over-extraction of sand and gravel – the ideal habitat in which native fish feed and breed – as a reason for the dwindling fish population. Ismaeel Dar, who earns his living fishing in the Jhelum, said building contractors have been using heavy equipment to extract sand and gravel. “This has snatched our livelihoods from us. We used to earn 250 to 350 rupees [US$7] a day, but now we hardly find any fish to catch.”

Deforestation in the Himalayas has been rampant and the deforested areas have either been transformed into farmland in the lower altitudes, or have simply been rendered barren. “This degradation of the catchment has greatly affected the river system as the eroded soil goes directly into the river,” said Yousuf, destroying native species’ breeding grounds.

According to him, the upper and middle reaches of the streams have also been greatly exploited by the people over the years and large chunks of shallow areas have been reclaimed for agriculture and horticulture.

“Because of soil erosion, the river-bed has witnessed heavy siltation which in turn has had a huge impact on the carrying capacity of the Jhelum,” said Ahmad Muzaffar Lankar, chief engineer of Kashmir’s Irrigation and Flood Control department. The dramatic drop in river flow “reflects a very serious trend,” he warned.

Kashmir’s new wave of hydro power projects, such as the Kishanganga, Upper Saandh and Ganderbal dams, are also taking their toll on the fish. “Due to the barrages built for these power projects, the fish, which always prefer to migrate upstream for spawning, find it difficult to swim upstream,” says Haroon Rashid who has studied the impacts of power projects on fish reproduction. “If I talk of Upper Saandh I and II, a long stretch of river remains without water beyond the dam site, especially in winters from November to February.” And this too, rather naturally, means a huge loss in the population of all fish species in this once anglers’ paradise.

Athar Parvaiz is an environmental journalist based in Kashmir.

Homepage image by Caijie