Qasim Shah, a farmer in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, does not regret giving up farming.
“Trout farming is more lucrative than traditional crops,” said Shah, who is also vice president of the Private Fish Farms Association in the Ghizer district. “Crops and fruits have become too sensitive to the climate and present the risk of losing investments. “
Trout farms are thriving in Gilgit-Baltistan, where rapidly warming glaciers form reservoirs of cold water – a critical breeding ground for trout. Nearly 200 fish farms have sprung up across the province in less than 10 years, with new farms appearing every month. Fish farms are also booming in neighboring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where the government hopes to create jobs. On each of these farms, up to 20,000 trout are raised to be sold as food.
As climate change threatens food security, traditional farmers in Gilgit-Baltistan are switching to trout, which they believe is a more sustainable source of income. Across South Asia, farmers are adjusting to declining yields and uncertain incomes – some, like Shah, looking beyond crops.
“I won 5,00,000 Pakistani rupees [$3,285] in profit at the end of last season despite the coronavirus pandemic, ”he added. “This season my goal is much higher. Shah started fish farming in 2018 with an investment of over 10 lakh Pakistani rupees. He set up a small hotel near the farm to serve fried trout to tourists and locals. If the Pakistani government provides transportation and packaging facilities, he said, it expects to export the fish to China.
“The land in my village is very fertile for crops and fruits, but irregular rains and other climatic consequences such as frequent pest attacks have spoiled the produce over the years,” Shah said.
The Pakistani government supports trout farming and private fish farms. In April, the federal government allocated 11.2 crore Pakistani rupees to promote fish farms in the mountain provinces. The Ministry of National Food Security and Research said the goal is to develop shrimp and fish farms in Pakistan that will create jobs, increase food insecurity and increase export earnings.
The support includes training and awareness sessions on acquiring land for fish farming, facilitating farmers to obtain bank loans for private hatcheries and providing fish feed.
Fears and denial
Untreated effluent from some hatcheries flows directly into the Indus River and streams which provide a source of fresh drinking water for communities.
Ali Asghar, an officer in the province’s fisheries department, confirmed that “water from some farms flows mainly to rivers.”
“If the farmers are careless, it can pollute the drinking water,” Asghar said, though he scorns the high levels of pollution in the river. No environmental impact assessment or study has been carried out since fish farms began to increase in the province. In 2014, a study of water sources by the province’s Environmental Protection Agency found that only 22% meet World Health Organization standards.
Another official said the department had received complaints from areas where residents directly used water from farms for drinking. Requesting anonymity, he said that the sources of fresh water in this area are contaminated “not only because of these farms but because of the waste from specially built hotels near the farms”.
Karim Johar, Researcher in the Fisheries Department, said: “Our goal is to raise awareness of how to farm trout and protect the environment. He said The third pole: “We have even closed a few farms – including a government hatchery – from which we have received complaints of water pollution. During the past year, the department recorded 96 violations related to fish farms and imposed fines totaling 1,000,000 Pakistani rupees ($ 649).
Johar said each district’s fisheries department monitors activities and educates farmers on sustainable practices. The training includes advice on farm management, structure of fish ponds, water concentration, feed supply, water hygiene and safety and environmental sensitivity.
“The fish feed or waste from these farms is not important enough to affect the environment on a large scale or dangerously contaminate rivers,” Johar said. He added: “The waves and flow of these rivers are so powerful that they naturally filter through any small level. [of] contamination.”
But as fish farms expand in Pakistan, concerns about pollution and sustainable practices are growing.
Barkat Ali, who lives in Birgal village, Ghizer district, said waste from around 30 large and small fish farms established in one village drains the waste directly into the Ghizer River – a tributary of the Indus River. .
“This drainage could contaminate drinking water if appropriate measures are not taken,” he said.
Farmer Qasim Shah, however, refuted these claims. “We are responsible and very sensitive to the environment. We are taking all measures to avoid pollution, ”he said. He said farmers do not use chemicals in fish feed and are “very strict about bedding.”
In recent years, large-scale fish farming has come under fire for threatening wild fish populations. Large commercial fish farms require tons of wild fish to be caught from the oceans and made into fish food.
Farid Ahmad Jan, fisheries and aquaculture specialist at Karakoram International University, said The third pole that at present, farmers in Gilgit-Baltistan are using discarded fish in wholesale markets. He said: “It doesn’t make financial sense to invest in catching live fish for fish feed, as that will increase the price of trout.”
Monitoring fish farms
Common environmental concerns with fish farms include the build-up of nutrients and effluent and the spread of disease to local fisheries, according to a report by the NGO Global Aquaculture Alliance. “Nutrient build-up occurs when there is a high density of fish in an area,” the report says. “Fish produce waste, and their waste has the potential to accumulate in the surroundings. This can deplete the water of oxygen, creating algae blooms and dead spots. “
He highlighted the effects of the use of antibiotics on the ecosystem around the enclosures, including on wild fish. He also raised concerns about the flight of non-native fish, which may compete with wild fish for food, potentially displacing native species.
Jan said there is an urgent need to educate owners of private farms. He mentioned a recent incident in Ghizer, where “three tons of trout died on a private farm because the bottom of the pen was not cleaned properly”.
“These farms are built very close to each other and all the water channels are connected,” Jan said. “If a disease breaks out in one of them, it quickly spreads to neighboring farms.”
“Right now the focus is on promoting trout farming and farmers are jumping at the chance because it is a lucrative business. But they have to listen to the experts if they want to farm trout in a sustainable way.
Jan also said trout farms in Pakistan could help protect trout populations if local demand can be met with farmed rather than wild fish. “The province’s trout populations will be wiped out in 10 years if nothing is done to protect them now,” he said. “For the moment, trout farms are aimed at the elite because their catches are expensive. As a result, locals head straight to rivers and streams to catch trout and deplete the stock. “
Raza Haider, regional conservation officer at the Global Fund, said owners of trout farms in Pakistan should be aware of the environmental drawbacks of their operations. “We need both a healthy environment and healthy food,” he said.
This article first appeared on The third pole.