Recently, the Jammu and Kashmir Lake Conservation and Management Authority (LCMA) made an extraordinary finding during their routine cleaning of the renowned Dal Lake ahead of the G20 meeting in Srinagar. An alligator gar fish was inadvertently caught in their de-weeding machine, and the discovery has triggered a heated debate online and offline.
“Initially, I mistook it for a crocodile, but upon observing its fins, I realised it might be a fish,” recalled Waseem Ahmed, the 36-year-old LCMA employee who spotted the gar fish. Government officials described the fish as having a crocodile-like head and razor-sharp teeth. Although the gar fish typically does not pose a threat to humans, its large size, which can reach up to eight feet, can be harmful to local fish species. The species is native to North America. Experts are still uncertain about its exact population in Dal Lake.
A carnivorous predator
Scientists and government officials are alarmed by the discovery, as the gar fish’s presence could pose a serious threat to native fish species. Shafeeqa Peer, a scientist with LCMA, said, “Being a carnivorous predator, it poses a threat to the natural species of Dal Lake. This fish can be found in various parts of India, including the upper lake in Bhopal and the backwaters of Kerala.” Peer said in places like Bhopal, the gar fish has been banned due to its predatory nature.
Experts consider the alligator gar to be one of the top predators in its native aquatic habitat. This formidable predator lies in wait, employing its powerful jaws to strike unsuspecting prey. The gar primarily relies on its sharp eyesight and chemosensory abilities to locate prey in the water. “Officials have confirmed it to be a carnivorous fish. How can we protect our livelihood now? There may be thousands of them in the lake. The local fish population is already rapidly declining,” said Ghulam Rasool, a 45-year-old fisherman.
Kashmir boasts numerous bodies of water, covering about 50,000 hectares in Jammu and Kashmir, including the Dal and Wular lakes. Dal Lake, in particular, harbours 17 distinct fish species, upon which 2,100 families depend for their livelihoods. Local fishermen, known as “mahageers”, have witnessed a significant decline in fish productivity in the Dal over the past few years. Rasool, a mahageer, highlights the historical importance of fishing in Dal Lake as a vital income source for the Kashmiri population residing along its shores.
However, their age-old livelihood now faces jeopardy due to the scarcity of fish in the lake. Rasool recalled that he used to catch 20 kg of fish in a single day. However, in the past four years, his catch has dwindled to a mere one or two kilograms. “It seems that a local fish breed has vanished,” lamented Rasool.
A troubling indication
Masood-ul-Hassan Balkhi, former dean of the faculty of fisheries at Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology of Kashmir (SKUAST), raised concerns about the unexpected presence of the gar fish in Dal Lake. He said that this could be the result of an accidental or careless introduction that might disrupt the existing ecology and fishery in the lake. Balkhi emphasised the need for relevant agencies and scientists to investigate the resurgence of this fish, as well as previous instances of exotic species (such as grass carp), in Dal Lake. According to Balkhi, the reappearance of the garfish could be a “troubling indication” for Kashmiri waterways.
LCMA has now partnered with SKUAST’s Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture to search for more alligator gar fish in the lake. The officials plan to initiate a thorough investigation to determine whether it is an isolated incident, an accident, or an intentional act. Abdul Majid Tak, the Joint Director of the State Fisheries Department, said that a report was being compiled regarding the discovery. He stated that they were actively searching for the source of the fish and any other similar specimens in the lake. “It may also be a mischievous act. Our department has never bred or supplied such fish thus far,” he said.
An official from the Fisheries Department told Frontline that a thorough investigation has been launched, treating the matter with utmost seriousness. “Our preliminary investigation suggests that someone may have kept it in their aquarium before releasing it into the Dal. However, we will share a comprehensive investigative report once it is available,” the official said.
Mubashir Naik and Irshad Hussain are journalists based in Jammu and Kashmir .