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Massive Fish Mortality Strikes Kashmir’s Lake, Threatens Livelihoods

Thousands of dead fish in Dal Lake, Kashmir, are of concern to fishers, who make a living off the lake. Credit: Umar Manzoor Shah/IPS

Thousands of dead fish in Dal Lake, Kashmir, are of concern to fishers, who make a living off the lake. Credit: Umar Manzoor Shah/IPS

SRINAGAR, Indian Kashmir, Jun 14 2023 (IPS) - Abdul Lateef Dar, a 45-year-old man living on the outskirts of Kashmir’s renowned Dal Lake, relies on the lake’s fish for food and income.

On the morning of May 26, 2023, Dar followed his usual routine, preparing his fishing tools and heading toward the lake. Initially, he noticed a few lifeless fish floating on the lake’s surface, which he considered a common sight. However, as the morning haze lifted, Dar looked at the lake with horror. The lake was filled with thousands of dead fish, resembling dry and withered branches. Dar urgently called out to fellow fishers and showed them the distressing scene.

Soon, hundreds of fishermen and their families gathered along the lake’s shore, witnessing the devastating scale of the fish mortality.

Dar recounted how he began fishing with his father at 14, relying on the lake for his livelihood. He expressed deep anguish at the devastation. Overnight, thousands of fish had perished, dealing a severe blow to his livelihood and that of countless others who depend on fishing and selling fish in the market.

“But I have never ever seen such devastation – it’s like a doomsday. Not hundreds but thousands of fish are dead overnight. This is the heaviest blow to my livelihood, and there are thousands like me whose livelihood is directly dependent upon catching fish and selling them in the market. What will we sell now, and what is there to catch?” Dar lamented.

The Hanjis community has lived around Dal Lake for centuries, and its main occupation is fishing. They are considered the poorest community in the valley – and they only own a few belongings and live a simple life. Because of their reliance on fishing since ancient times, the community, estimated at about 40 000 people, is more vulnerable than the others in Kashmir’s local populace.

In Srinagar, Jammu, and Kashmir, Dal Lake is a famous and iconic body of water with enormous cultural and ecological value. It is frequently referred to as Kashmir’s “jewel.”

The formation of Dal Lake is believed to have been caused as a result of tectonic action and glacial processes. It is surrounded by magnificent mountains and has a surface area of around 18 square kilometers.

The mass fish deaths widespread panic among the locals and particularly those families whose livelihood is directly dependent on the lake.

The region’s government said its scientific wing had made an initial examination to ascertain the cause of fish mortality and said the deaths were caused due to “thermal stratification”– a change in the temperature at different depths of the lake.

Bashir Ahmad Bhat, the most senior officer of Kashmir’s Lakes and Conservation Management Authority, told IPS that the samples had been collected more analysis is ongoing.

“Although we have collected samples for a thorough analysis, the fish (seemed to have) died as a result of heat stratification, a common occurrence. There is no need to be alarmed; fish as little as two to three inches have perished. We have collected samples of the dead fish in the research lab of our department to find out the precise reason why the fish in the lake died; we are awaiting the official results,” Bhat said.

However, for experts and research scholars, fish mortality in the water body could be a prelude to more troubled times ahead.

Zahid Ahmad Qazi, a research scholar, told IPS that the spike in pollution level is severely affecting the lake’s biodiversity and is causing huge stress to the lake’s fish fauna. He says the unchecked construction around the lake and liquid and solid wastes going into the lake’s water has begun to show drastic impacts.

A research paper published by the Indian Journal of Extension Education in 2022 highlighted the same fact.

“Over the years, the water quality of Dal Lake has deteriorated, causing adverse impacts on its fish fauna. The endemic Schizothorax fish populations have declined considerably owing to the pollution and introduction of exotics. At the same time, the total fish production of the lake has not increased much over the last few decades. The lack of proper governance, policy regulations, and coordination between government agencies and fishers adds more negative impact to this,” the research paper concluded.

The Department of Lakes and Waterways Development Authority, tasked with the protection of the lakes in Kashmir, indicated there were various plans underway to save the Dal Lake and its biodiversity. The department, according to its officials, is uprooting water lilies with traditional methods and weeding the lake using the latest machinery so that the surface is freed from weeds and its fish production increases.

However, in 2018 research done by Humaira Qadri and A. R. Yousuf from the Department of Environmental Science, University of Kashmir, the government, despite spending USD 3 million on the conservation of the lake so far, there has been no visible improvement in its condition. “A lack of proper management and restoration plan and the incidence of engineered but ecologically unsound management practices have led to a failure in the conservation efforts,” reveals the research.

It concluded that conservation efforts have proved to be a failure. It adds that the apathy of the managing authorities has resulted in the deterioration of the lake.

“There is a need to formulate a proper ecologically sound management plan for the lake encompassing all the environmental components of the lake ecosystem and thus help to conserve the lake in a real ecological sense,” the research stated.

IPS UN Bureau Report


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