Bandipora, Jan 25: Once a lifeline for ten thousand fishing families in north Kashmir, Asia’s second-largest freshwater lake, Wular, has lost its sheen due to a decline in fish catch and chestnut production, forcing fishermen to seek other employment opportunities.
Abdul Khaliq from Zurimanz village in Bandipora said that despite spending 14-15 hours daily in the lake, he returns with a meagre catch of not more than 1 kg of fish. The number of fishermen has also dwindled in the lake, and they now prefer other forms of employment, he said.
Zahoor Ahmad, a 34-year-old father of three, lamented, “Working fourteen hours every day, I hardly manage four to five thousand rupees a month by catching fish, which is insufficient to feed my family.”
Aijaz Ahmad, another fisherman, described their daily routine. “We (9 fishermen) row our boats at around 7:30 am in the lake and return at around 06:00 pm. Our catch is around Rs 1500 which goes to Rs 166 a day per person. It seems the lake does not support us anymore,” he said.
Ahmad said he left his education in 5th standard due to poverty. “Our ancestors have taught us the practice of catching fish, but now the lake’s resources can no longer sustain us.”
Expressing concern about increasing garbage and a decline in fish catch, locals said that lakes have almost dried up, which has impacted not only fish but also chestnut production in recent years.
A study by Wetlands International South Asia revealed a 20-fold decline in fish catches over the last 50 years, from 10544 to 1486 tonnes per annum.
Approximately 60% of fish production in Jammu and Kashmir comes from Wular Lake, where only 30-40 sq km of open water remains out of 184 sq km. The shrinking water levels have diminished the lake’s glory, shallowness, and depth, adversely affecting the economy of the fishing community.
Manzoor Ahmad, a fisherman, said there is a decline in fish catch. He recalled that earlier a fisherman could catch about 8-10 kgs of fish in a day.
Leaving his boat with a heavy heart, he said saving the lake is a collective responsibility. He urged authorities to identify individuals who discard garbage into the water bodies, particularly the Jhelum that feeds Wular Lake.
A research study revealed that 14 fish species inhabited Wular Lake in the past, but increasing garbage and various issues have led to the extinction of several fish species.
Imtiyaz Ahmad, 28, a former fisherman now working as a carpenter in his village, said, “Today, only two or three fish species are found in the lake. My grandfather used to narrate stories of abundant fish catches in the past. Now, it appears we have to explore alternative employment options as soon as possible.”
Manzoor Ahmad, a social activist from Lahrwalpora, said although the government is supporting and promoting different artworks in the valley, authorities should formulate specific schemes for these fishermen. “This community has never resorted to protests for employment; their livelihood has depended on Wular for centuries, and now it is struggling for survival,” he said.
An official said that despite the challenges, an extensive Wular restoration project is actively underway to ensure its conservation and restoration.