Anglers await return of Kashmir's 'tiger fish'

A giant freshwater carp nicknamed the “tiger fish” for its great fighting abilities is set to return to the fast-flowing rivers of Indian Kashmir, officials say.

Scientists have built a hatchery for breeding the mahseer and hope to restock the waters of Kashmir, known as an “angler’s paradise”, although few foreign fishermen venture here now due to a deadly Islamic insurgency.

“Catching mahseer is a real sport, a real adventure. Its reintroduction in these waters will definitely see an influx of anglers,” says one enthusiastic fisherman, Abdul Qayoom, who lives on the outskirts of Srinagar, urban hub of the revolt against New Delhi’s rule that began in 1989.

“They fight like tigers when you try to net them,” says 54-year-old Qayoom, recalling how he used to catch the fish in his youth. “But the last catch I had was in 1987.
My family and friends all feasted on this 40kg fish; it was wonderful.”

Hundreds of thrashing, thick-scaled mahseer used to migrate to Indian Kashmir each year until neighbouring Pakistan completed the Mangla Dam in 1967 across the Jhelum River, the traditional migratory route for the fish.

The dam prevented the red-finned omnivorous mahseer—prized for its length of up to 2,75m and weight of up to 60kg—from swimming to Indian Kashmir from the Pakistan side.

While the mahseer, valued by connoisseurs for its lean and succulent meat, can be found in other parts of the subcontinent, it now is rarely seen in the waters of Indian Kashmir.

“It’s almost extinct in these waters,” says Shaukath Ali, joint director of Kashmir’s fisheries department and a specialist in fish rearing.

But last year, Indian Kashmir authorities set up a hatchery in southern Udhampur district to breed the mahseer and plan to open another this year in Uri, near the de facto border dividing Kashmir between nuclear-armed neighbours India and Pakistan.

“We’re breeding the prized fish in captivity and hope to release the fish in water bodies soon,” says Ali, adding no date has yet been fixed. “We want to stock mahseer fingerlings in natural waters and to revive the presence of this fish.”

The government is also using hatcheries to stock Indian Kashmir’s rivers with brown trout, identifiable by their red dappling and luminescent silver and gold streaks and introduced by India’s former British colonial rulers.

The fish-breeding drive is part of a government effort to lure anglers back to the region’s powerful rivers, which throw up white spray as they crest over huge boulders.

“The anglers love the tiger fish for its fighting spirit,” says Ghulam Rasool Wani, a zoologist and fish expert. “Their introduction will certainly lure more anglers to Kashmir.”

Kashmir used to draw fishermen from around the world to cast their lures in its rivers. But after Islamic rebels took up arms against New Delhi’s rule nearly 18 years ago, the number of tourists to this region of verdant valleys and snowcapped peaks plummeted.

Fear of rebel attacks meant that venturing into the wilds of Kashmir with just a fishing rod for protection became a “minority sport” for only the bravest of fishermen.

But tourism officials say they hope a peace process between India and Pakistan aimed at ending their decades-old feud over the Himalayan region that each hold in part and claim in full will bring a “tourist dividend”.

The number of insurgency-related deaths in the region has fallen from 10 deaths daily in 2001 to three in 2006.

“We have proposed setting up aquariums all along River Jehlum and more fishing points to lure more tourists, anglers in particular,” says Ali.—AFP

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