Kashmir’s Trout Fishery in Troubled Waters

Ignoring local environmental regulations, the Indian government has approved a spate of gravel- and boulder-mining projects in the valley’s streams.

Naristan is a 49 kilometer-long, meandering snow-fed trout stream in the Indian administered part of Kashmir Valley. In April last year, the regional government approved a gravel and boulder-mining project on 2.69 hectare block of the stream that is a critical part of the local trout habitat.

Naristan isn’t the only stream in the Kashmir Valley being threatened by development and extraction activities. Other major trout streams in the valley, like Lidder, Bringhi, and Arin, where such mining projects have been approved as well, face similar fates. This threatens the survival of the valley’s thriving trout fishery that relies heavily on fish that were brought to Kashmir over a century ago from Scotland by the then-ruler Maharaja Hari Singh. Today, Kashmir’s trout fishery is a key part of the local economy.

Arin_Nallah-stream in Kashmir
Bandipora Arin Nallah, one of the many streams in Kashmir that are famous for trout fishing — a key part of the economy in the Jammu and Kashmir valley. Photo by Aehsaan.

The two imported varieties — rainbow and brown trout — found a perfect home in the Kashmir Valley’s cold fresh water streams. The rainbow trout was reared in government farms and brown trout was stocked in the wild, in the streams like Naristan and Bringhi. Now 40 streams in Kashmir with a total length of 500 km teem with these trout. Similarly 12 high-altitude lakes located at 8,000 feet to 12,000 feet above the sea level are home to the fish as well. Additionally, the region’s fisheries department has 59 trout rearing units and hatcheries. Kashmir is now the largest producer of trout in India, with an annual turnover of 600 tons of the fish. In recent years, the local government has been encouraging small-scale trout farming projects. Kashmir now has 533 privately-owned trout-rearing units.

The fishery was thriving until August 5, 2019, when India withdrew Article 370 of its constitution that granted Kashmir a semi-autonomous status. The extension of rules for mining of minor minerals for India that replaced the stricter Kashmiri laws offer no special protection to trout streams. The rules have for the first time thrown open the mining contracts in Kashmir to outsiders. In fact, over the past year, the majority of mining contracts for minor minerals in the region’s streams and rivers have been cornered by out-of-area companies and individuals, depriving thousands of local miners of their livelihood and breeding in its wake a deep resentment at the new state of affairs.

At the same time, there’s a growing public concern over the impact these new mining rules will have on the environment. And extraction of boulders and gravel from the trout streams has, in a sense, come to symbolize this exploitation.

Already, the Indian government has issued a spate of permits allowing the establishment of stone-crushing units along many of Kashmir’s streams. According to the Kashmir fisheries department data, no-objection certificates (NOC) have been issued to 130 such crushers over the past few months. This enables the certificate holders to not only set up the units close to streams but also extract boulders from the streambeds.

“Such extraction leads to erosion of the streambed and banks, increase in stream’s slope and the consequent change in its morphology,” said a senior official at the region’s department of fisheries who didn’t want to be identified fearing a government reprisal. The official said that not only survival of trout is threatened but also that of other aquatic life in the snow-fed streams, including catfish and the five remaining indigenous snow trout species, which have already been in steady decline over the past century due to the introduction of nonnative rainbow and brown trout as well as common carp. (When Austrian biologist Jakob Heckel catalogued 12 species of snow trout.)

The extraction of boulders and gravel will destroy the feeding and breeding ground of trout and the other local fish, says Dr Feroz Ahmad Bhat, senior assistant professor at Faculty of Fisheries at Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology of Kashmir.

“Trout build a nest, also called redd, in the gravel of the freshwater stream. A female trout lays her eggs in these nests which are fertilized by a male,” Feroz explains. “Similarly, trout feed on insects, crustaceans, mollusks, snails, and worms which thrive in the small cave-like spaces created by the by boulders. Some of this food is available on the boulders. So, imagine what will happen once more and more gravel and boulder is extracted?”

Over the past few months, the Indian government has also issued three new laws that threaten to irreversibly damage the region’s renowned natural beauty. They are Control of Buildings Operations Act, Development Act, and Minor Minerals Concession, Storage, Transportation and Prevention of Illegal Mining Rules.

Under the first two acts, any area within Kashmir can be notified as a “strategic area” where the Indian Army can carry out unhindered construction and the other related activities. There are 600,000 Army personnel stationed in Kashmir to fight the ongoing separatist insurgency that is aided in part by neighboring Pakistan, which claims the region as its own. The Army camps are already present all over Kashmir, including at famous tourist spots, ecologically fragile places, even on the path to a major Hindu pilgrimage, Amarnath. The new laws now give the military a carte blanche to take over any area it wishes, without having to go through the rigmarole of seeking permission from the Kashmir government.

trout caught in a stream
Trout caught in Pahalgam Valley, Kashmir. Gravel and boulder mining projects threaten the survival of trout and other aquatic life in these snow-fed streams. The streams are already under stress from pollution and climate change. Photo by Matthew Laird Acred.

In September 2019, a month after the August 5 move, the Indian government diverted 243 hectares of forest land for use by the Army. According to a government estimate, Indian armed forces are already in occupation of 53,353 hectares of land in Kashmir. Now, under Control of Buildings Operations Act and Development Act Army is free to grab more land.

Similarly, the new minor minerals rule has made mining, extraction of minerals easier, removing essential environmental safeguards like not allowing stone-crushing operations near streams and forbidding mechanized mining. There is now a relaxed environmental regime. The miners who have received contracts have been largely operating without otherwise mandatory environmental clearances. At Ranbiara stream is south Kashmir, excavators can be seen in action on the banks daily, loading boulders on to the waiting trailers.

Under the circumstances, there is little that can be done. Kashmir currently is being directly ruled from the Indian capital, New Delhi. Democratic rule that is in operation in other parts of India has been suspended in this region. The Indian administration is thus not amenable to local grievances. The local political parties have no say, nor do the local civil society organizations.

“Going by the manner they are being implemented, the new rules betray a sinister political agenda,” says Khurram Parvez, a noted human rights defender in Kashmir. “They are primarily designed to promote the control of the local resources by the outsiders. There’s thus no concern for the local environment.”

The mining permissions to outsiders and the Indian Army’s freedom to occupy more land, including in fragile high-altitude areas like along the route to Amarnath, lend credence to these fears. The pilgrimage located at 12,000 feet above sea level has two routes: one through the famous tourist resort of Pahalgam in Southern Kashmir and another through Sonamarg, also a tourist spot, in central Kashmir. Both routes fall along snow-bound hills that are home to many of Kashmir’s glaciers that feed its water bodies including the trout streams. Recent years have witnessed a conspicuous receding of these glaciers including Kolahai, the largest of them all.

According to a recent study, glaciers in Kashmir are receding at “a significant rate” due to climate change and human intrusion into these high-altitude areas, especially interventions like the annual Amarnath pilgrimage that attracts a million people from across India. Some of the biggest glaciers like Kolahai have shrunk by 23 percent in the past six years. This is reducing the freshwater discharge into the region’s rivers and streams and that further threatens local fish habitats and impacts the region’s agriculture too.

Climate change and human activity are the “gravest threats” to the valley’s waterbodies, says Dr Shakil Ramshoo, the head of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Kashmir.

“This calls for striking a balance between development and environment. But this time we are making everything subservient to development”.

For now, trout and other aquatic life, and Kashmir’s trout-based industry seem to be the first victims at the receiving end of this approach. This only compounds the challenges to the survival of this exotic fish already reeling from ecological degradation in its habitat. A study by the agriculture university in 2016 had blamed the “the use of biocides (pesticides, insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc) and other chemicals in the horticulture and agriculture activities” for contamination of Kashmir’s water resources including trout streams. The study had also listed the heavy deforestation, construction of houses along the trout streams that together has led to the flow of sewage and sedimentation in the streams.

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