SRINAGAR, Jammu and Kashmir – One evening in February, 40-year-old Nazir Ahmad Kondoo returned from Lake Anchar to his one-story home in Srinagar, capital of India-administered Jammu and Kashmir. Exhausted, he dragged his fishing equipment – a net, a panzar (a kind of rod) and a fish basket – with him. But no fish.
This wasn't the first time Kondoo couldn't catch anything. But it was the third day in a row that he had to come home empty-handed – and that was unusual.
Kondoo, who learned the art of fishing from his father, has been in the business since dropping out of school at the age of 15. At that time he accompanied his father to Lake Anchar, which is about 8 km from the capital. They mostly caught a type of fish commonly known as kasheir gaed, and they made a good amount of money – $ 12-15 a day, which was enough to support their family of 10.
"My father raised us all in the fish business," Kondoo said, remembering the lake's crystal clear waters in the 1990s when it was the main source of income for thousands of fishermen. “But now look at the condition of this lake. I find it difficult to even achieve my goals. “Once 12 square miles in 1893-1894, the lake is now only about 3 square miles, a relatively small point on a map.
Lake Anchar is not alone. According to research by the International Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Studies, Kashmir’s waters have been negatively affected by severe pollution, silting (when the water becomes clogged with silt and clay) and development since 1990. All of this has slowly reduced the biodiversity of the fish.
In 2019, Nazeer Ahmad, professor at the university, said at a two-day national conference on fisheries and climate change at Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology in Kashmir (SKUAST) that 93,000 people are still living in the region depending on the fishing sector. However, it's hard to know how much longer they'll get by. Many fishermen have withdrawn from business and are unable to meet their families' daily expenses.
Among them is the 64-year-old Ghulam Ahmad Shalbab, who was a fisherman for 30 years but left with falling profits. His wife, 60-year-old Sondree, said he would go to Anchar Lake every day in hopes of a good catch, but always came back disappointed. "For a very long time he would tell me to do another job, but deep down he couldn't because he thought he couldn't do any other job," said Sondree. One day he woke up and just decided not to go to the lake.
Shalbab found it difficult to support his family, so his wife found work. Sondree now wakes up early in the morning to join a group of women who sit on the shores of Lake Anchar and peel the skin off of kaanis (sticks used to make decorative wooden baskets and other pieces). She makes about $ 4 a day.
“I can't afford to sit at home. I have to work hard now because my husband is not working. How else can I support my family? That's why I don't mind working here in the middle of a heap of rubbish, ”she said, pointing to the lake, which is littered with floating heaps of rubbish.
She said she still sees men leaving with their fishing gear every day. "I remember my husband waking up with enthusiasm, but in the end he realized that catching fish will be the toughest job in Kashmir." As she spoke, several men went down to the water and unlocked their boats.
"These men, you see, they are all fishermen, companions of my husband, but he's no longer a fisherman," added Sondree with a grin. Minutes later another group of men came with nets and tanks. Within 30 minutes, the two groups, including Kondoo, joined forces in the middle of the lake and made a flotilla of nearly 50 fishermen in search of the few fish still living in the water.
Feroz Ahmad Bhat, Assistant Professor and Head of Fisheries Resource Management at SKUAST, believes that agriculture is the main reason fish are harder to come by. He said pesticides used in agricultural activities ultimately end up in the Kashmiri lakes and prove dangerous. "If the environment is not viable for breeding fish, how can one expect production to increase?" He added that the periphery of Dal Lake in Srinagar four decades ago was sandy and suitable for fish farming. Due to waste and pollution, the shallows are no longer a good breeding ground.
Dal Lake, the second largest lake in the region, is only a few kilometers from the capital. A study conducted by the University of Kashmir found that Lake Dal has lost about 25 percent of its area over the past 157 years due to unregulated changes in land use and land cover.
To address these issues, the regional government established the Lakes and Waterways Development Agency (LAWDA) in 1997 as a self-governing organization to monitor and conserve the region's waters. LAWDA estimates nearly 176,400,000 pounds of silt, 68,343 pounds of nitrates and 8,818 pounds of phosphates are added to Dal Lake annually. According to LAWDA, about $ 150 million has been spent on improving the condition of the lake since the 1980s. Even after this immense sum, the condition of the lake shows no improvement.
Meanwhile, the Kashmiri Fisheries Department announced that it is building fish farms for the fishing community and young people. The department said it has created over 1,000 fish farms, which are touted as a good source of employment.
However, Kondoo and his community think the man-made farms are a joke. And even if they help younger Kashmiris, he believes the old fishing community sees no benefit. Anyway, "the natural waters are obviously better than man-made," said Kondoo.
Back at Anchar Lake, the Kondoo hasn't caught a fish yet, but it's still hopeful. He sits patiently as he goes by every day. And one day he could get a good route.
Kondoo is afraid that not every fisherman is as hopeful as he is. He said he saw many people quit this job. "This is the last generation of fishermen and we will deal with our deaths like fish in Kashmiri waters," he said. He can be right.