Sunday, December 10, 2023

Dal Lake in distress: Fish deaths, invasive species raise alarm

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Dal Lake, a picturesque water body in Srinagar, Kashmir, has once again made headlines, but for all the wrong reasons. Recent incidents of fish deaths in the lake have sparked worries and anxieties among residents and the fishing community.

The occurrences were primarily observed near the SKICC complex and the Centaur Lake View Hotel on the shores of Dal Lake during May. This particular area of the lake, known for its frequented Shikaras (traditional Kashmiri boats) and artificial fountains that provide adequate aeration, has become a focal point for the concerning phenomenon.

“In Kashmiri, we refer to it as ‘tetur.‘ It is a natural phenomenon. Very delicate fingerlings can succumb if there are temperature fluctuations or impurities along with low oxygen levels. These factors are crucial for their survival,” Ajaz Rasool, an environmentalist, and expert in hydraulic engineering, shed light on the situation, told Maktoob

Residents attribute the tainted water in Dal Lake to pollution, which they believe caused the fish deaths. Bashir Ahmad, a 70-year-old resident of Srinagar, expressed his concern, saying, “Once upon a time, the lake was teeming with fish; however, today, there are none. Ten years ago, I would have caught about ten kilograms of fish if I had sat in the same location, but today I have only caught two after three long hours. I believe that the administration is not even attentive enough.”

Bashir blamed the houseboats for the crisis, stating, “People have been building homes in Dal for so long, and the sewage of houseboats ends up in the water. I believe that Dal would cease to exist if we kept acting in the same way.”

Contrary to the locals’ beliefs, Rasool explains that houseboats cannot be blamed because they are at the exit point of Dal and the water goes out from the Dalgate area towards the river Jhelum.

“If this was because of pollution, then Nigeen would have also witnessed this because Dal and Nigeen meet at a point, and Nigeen would have witnessed this before Dal. The deaths were reported only in Dal from the Oberoi Palace hotel to the Nishat pipeline bund,” he said.

Rasool highlighted the role of hotels in contributing to the pollution, stating, “Hotels have SEP, for example, Lalit Grand, when they clean that everything comes through the drainage system into the dal. Even Santoor’s Sewage Treatment Plant (STP) wastage is dropped into Dal Lake.”

He emphasised that this point source of pollution directly affects the oxygen levels in that specific area, resulting in the unfortunate death of fish.

Manzoor Pakhtoon, the chairman of the Houseboats Owners Association also denied the accusations and said, “People are talking without knowing the facts. Houseboats have been in Dal for decades. If this all would have been because of houseboats, then there should not even be one fish in the water. As experts already said, this was because of a lack of oxygen in the lake. The number of houseboats has decreased with time. We used to have almost 2000 houseboats, and now it has decreased to 750. Even the area where fish were found dead is far away from houseboats. Soon houseboats will be connected with STPs.”

This is not the first time such incidents have occurred in Kashmir water bodies. In 2012, numerous fish died in Nigeen Lake, mostly due to physicochemical changes triggered by high pollution levels. The deaths had a significant impact on thousands of people whose livelihoods depended on the sale of fish, either directly or indirectly. An application was submitted to the J&K High Court, urging it to investigate the mystery behind the large-scale fish deaths in the river. The High Court then directed the government to form an expert committee to determine the cause of the deaths.

Similar incidents of fish deaths were reported in Wular Lake in north Kashmir in 2010. In such water bodies where mosquito populations are high, as mosquitoes feed on the larvae of two fish species, Crossocheilus diplocheilus and Gambusia casinos, the primarily affected species suffer.

Reflecting on past events, Ajaz said, “The incident of fish death that took place recently in the Dal didn’t happen for the first time. There has been a history of such events.” He also expressed his concerns to the LCMA, urging them to investigate the issue. Scientists from SKAUST attributed the deaths to fluctuations in temperature, but if that were the case, similar incidents would have occurred in other water bodies as well. The fact that this happened in one specific place suggests the presence of a point source of pollution.

Masood Ahmad Khan, Deputy Engineer in the Research Monitoring Division of  J&K Lake Conservation & Management Authority said, “We believe it was due to thermal stratification, and we are still investigating further. The dead fish were little fingerlings and not larger fish, as some people exaggerated.”

A Non-Native Fish Eater 

Adding to the concerns surrounding Dal Lake’s ecological balance, the recent discovery of an Alligator Gar-like fish in the lake has alarmed biologists. This non-native predator fish, predominantly found in North America, was found during the meticulous de-weeding process for the G20 event near SKICC on May 12, 2023. This is believed to be the largest species in the Gar family. 

Rasool expressed his opinion on this discovery, saying, “I think somebody brought an aquarium from outside, and it must have had an egg or a little alligator garfish. When it started growing, that person must have dropped the fish into the lake. The fish have continued to grow in the lake, and this is not our native fish, as we all know. Both male and female alligator garfish were found in Dal Lake. They will eat every fish species present in the lake and take a predominant place in Dal Lake.”

This discovery has sparked concern among the residents of the Kashmir Valley, particularly those living near or within the vicinity of Dal Lake. The presence of this foreign fish species raises fears that it may pose a significant threat to the delicate balance of the lake’s natural aquatic life.

A local boatman, Khursheed Ahmad expressed his apprehensions, saying, “This fish has very sharp teeth that can harm locals in Dal if they grow further.”

Ajaz Rasool also expressed deep concerns about the situation, stating, “It is a significant threat to our aquatic life. This will also affect our daily activities in Dal, as this species can grow up to 8ft and can harm people as well. There are high chances of more fish in the lake.”

The fish deaths in Dal Lake and the discovery of the non-native predator fish highlight the urgent need for comprehensive measures to address the environmental challenges facing the lake. The pollution and contamination issues, as well as the introduction of non-native species, have a detrimental impact on the delicate ecosystem of Dal Lake and the livelihoods of those dependent on it.

It is crucial to address these issues urgently and take decisive actions to protect the natural beauty and ecological integrity of Dal Lake, not only for the present generation but also for the generations to come. The lake’s survival and the well-being of its diverse aquatic life depend on our collective responsibility to preserve and protect this invaluable natural treasure.

Tazeem Nazir is a freelance journalist based in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir.

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