Qasim Shah, a farmer in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir’s Gilgit-Baltistan region, has no regrets about giving up crop farming.

“Trout farming is more lucrative than traditional crops,” said Shah, who is also the vice president of the Private Fish Farms Association in the Ghizer district. “Crops and fruit have become too climate-sensitive and come with the risk of losing investment.”

Trout farms are cropping up in Gilgit-Baltistan, where rapidly warming glaciers form cold-water reservoirs – a key breeding ground for trout. Nearly 200 fish farms have been set up across the province in less than 10 years, with new farms appearing every month. Fish farms are also burgeoning in the neighbouring province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where the government hopes to create jobs. At each of these farms, up to 20,000 trout are bred to be sold as food.

As climate change threatens food security, traditional crop farmers in Gilgit-Baltistan are opting for trout, which they say is a more sustainable source of income. Across South Asia, farmers are adapting to dwindling outputs and uncertain incomes – with some, like Shah, looking beyond crop cultivation.

“I earned 5,00,000 Pakistani rupees [$3,285] in profit at the end of the last season despite the coronavirus pandemic,” he added. “This season, my target 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 Pakistan government provides transport and packaging facilities, he said, he expects to export the fish to China.

“My village land is highly fertile for crops and fruit but erratic rains and other climatic implications like frequent pest attacks have spoiled the produce over the years,” said Shah.

The Pakistan government supports trout breeding and private fish farms. In April, the federal government earmarked 11.2 crore Pakistani rupees to promote fish farms in mountain provinces. The Ministry of National Food Security & Research said the aim was to develop shrimp and fish farms in Pakistan that will create jobs, enhance food insecurity and increase export earnings.

The support includes training and awareness sessions on acquiring land for fish farming, facilitating farmers in getting bank loans for private hatcheries and providing the fish feed.

Fears and denial

Untreated effluent from some hatcheries drains directly into the Indus river and streams which are a source of fresh drinking water for communities.

Ali Asghar, an officer in the province’s fisheries department, confirmed that “water from some farms mostly drains to the rivers”.

“If farmers are careless, it may pollute drinking water,” Asghar said, though he was dismissive of high levels of pollution in the river. No study or environmental impact assessment has been conducted since fish farms began to increase in the province. In 2014, a study conducted on water sources by the province’s Environmental Protection Agency said only 22% comply with World Health Organization standards.

Another official said the department received complaints from areas where locals were directly using water from farms for drinking. Requesting anonymity, he said freshwater sources in this area are contaminated “not only due to these farms but from waste coming from hotels especially built near the farms”.

Karim Johar, a research officer in the fisheries department, said: “Our focus is on creating awareness on how to breed trout and how to protect the environment.” He told The Third Pole: “We even shut a few farms – including a government hatchery – from where we received complaints of polluting water.” In the past year, the department registered 96 offences related to fish farms and levied total fines of 1,00,000 Pakistani rupees ($649).

Johar said every district’s fisheries department monitors activities and educates farmers about sustainable practices. The training includes guidance on farm management, structure of fish ponds, water concentration, feed provision, water and safety hygiene and environmental sensitivity.

“Fish feed or waste from these farms is not significant enough to affect the environment at a large scale or dangerously contaminate the rivers,” Johar said. He added: “The waves and flow of these rivers is so powerful that it naturally filters any small level [of] contamination.”

But as fish farms grow in Pakistan, concerns about pollution and sustainable practices mount.

A fish farm in Birgal village, where waste from about 30 fish farms flows into the Ghizer river. Photo credit: PM Baigel

Barkat Ali, who lives in Birgal village, Ghizer district, said waste from about 30 big and small fish farms established in one village drains waste directly into the Ghizer river – a tributary of the Indus.

“This drainage could contaminate drinking water if proper measures are not taken,” he said.

Farmer Qasim Shah, however, rebuffed such allegations. “We are responsible and very sensitive to the environment. We take every measure to avoid pollution,” he said. He said farmers do not use chemicals in fish feed and are “very strict about littering”.

Environmental impact

In recent years, large-scale fish farming has come under fire for threatening wild fish populations. Big commercial fish farms require tonnes of wild fish to be caught from the oceans and made into fish food.

Farid Ahmad Jan, a fisheries and aquaculture specialist at Karakoram International University, told The Third Pole that at the moment farmers in Gilgit-Baltistan use discarded fish from wholesale markets. He said: “It does not make financial sense to invest in catching live fish for fish feed as it will drive up the price of the trout.”

Monitoring fish farms

According to a report by NGO the Global Aquaculture Alliance, common environmental concerns linked to fish farms include nutrient and effluent build-up and disease spreading to local fisheries. “Nutrient build-up happens when there is a high density of fish in one area,” the report said. “Fish produce waste, and their waste has the potential to build up in the surrounding area. This can deplete the water of oxygen, creating algal blooms and dead zones.”

It highlighted the effects of antibiotic use on the ecosystem around enclosures, including on wild fish. It also raised concerns about the escape of non-native fish, which may compete with wild fish for food, potentially displacing native species.

Jan said there is a dire need to educate private farm owners. He talked about a recent incident in Ghizer, where “three tonnes of trout died at a private farm because the bottom of the enclosure was not cleaned properly”.

“These farms are built very close together and all the water channels are connected,” said Jan. “If a disease erupts in one, it quickly spreads to the nearby farms.”

“Right now, there is a major focus on promoting trout farms and farmers jump at the opportunity as it is a lucrative business. But they need to listen to experts if they want to farm trout sustainably.”

Jan also said that trout farms in Pakistan could help protect trout populations if local demand can be met by farmed rather than wild fish. “Trout populations in the province will be wiped out in 10 years if something is not done to protect them now,” he said. “At the moment, the trout farms are catering to the elite as their catch is expensive. As a result, locals go directly to rivers and streams to catch trout and deplete the stock.”

Raza Haider, regional head for conservation at the World Wide Fund, said trout farm owners in Pakistan must keep in mind the environmental adversities in their activities. “We need both a sound environment as well as nutrition,” he said.

This article first appeared on The Third Pole.