Mobs pillage River Swat as it swells with dead and dying fish

Fishermen, officials say the river was poisoned in the middle of the night.


Hundreds flocked to the River Swat with nets to catch the dying fish. PHOTO: SHERINZADA/EXPRESS

SWAT: The commotion at River Swat on Sunday morning evoked images of the California Gold Rush – hordes of men, jostling for their bit of glitter. Unfortunately, instead of gold nuggets, the crowds, knee deep in the river, were actually panning for something silver – dead and dying fish.

Hundreds of residents from Mingora and Kanjo in Swat had rushed to the banks near Ayub Bridge carrying hooks, sheets and nets, hoping to catch what seemed to be poisoned fish, floating on the river’s surface.

Cry me a river

Rafiq Khan, who lives near the river, also rushed down to get his easy catch of the day. It was his understanding that under the cover of the night, someone had poured poison in a small pond which leads to the river, causing thousands of fish to become floaters. “I came with a net and caught five kilogrammes,” which, Rafiq shared, was enough to last his family a week.

But this wasn’t the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for Ali Khan, a fisherman. Ali was sitting by the bank, staring blankly at the all-consuming chaos before bursting into tears.

“This is cruelty, this madness will cause the fish to literally become extinct,” Ali claimed the specific type of cold-blooded aquatic creatures were second only to the trout as a delicacy. “I am not worried about my livelihood but the poor creature which is being obliterated as we speak.”

For the distraught fisherman, such a mob will thin the fish population to such an extent that even five years will not be sufficient time to breed back the numbers.

There are at least three species of fish in the river: Orienus Plagiostomus, locally known as aselghay, or swati or gulguli; Racoma Labiata, known as chun; and Schizothorax Esocinus, better known as Thalk.

While talking to The Express Tribune, Swat District Fisheries Officer Ibrar Khan insisted the crowds were just picnicking. However, he eventually conceded they were there to catch the fish but denied the poisoning.

“The fish floated to the surface because of oxygen depletion. This occurred after small natural ponds were formed during the construction on Ayub Bridge, which caused an excess of water in the river – the rush just knocked the fish senseless, to the surface.”

While one common reason behind fish kills is oxygen depletion, it usually occurs as a result of drought, or an unexpected increase in temperature, both of which affect oxygen levels in the water – neither of those two occurrences have been evidenced at River Swat.

“We have arrested a number of people and filed cases against them,” added Ibrar.

Silver can kill you

“The people at the river will only leave once they’ve pushed the species to extinction,” said another official from the fisheries department, wishing to remain anonymous.

He went on to claim, so far not even a single person has been arrested nor any net seized from them. “Soon we will realize we have lost some very precious species in our areas.”

Gulguli costs Rs600 in the local market and more than $200 in the international market, shared the official.

According to him, cold water fish hardly ever rise to the surface, so it would have to be poisoned.

Whoever poisoned the fish, could have used cyanide, ammonia, DDT or other toxic pesticides. “I cannot confirm the kind of toxicity – I haven’t visited the site, and I don’t have the courage to go see such a heartbreaking scene.”

Qazi Sanaul Haq, a school teacher and activist from Mingora, shared his outrage. “Catching one or two fish cannot change the course of these people’s lives but it can change the natural course of the area.”

“It’s not just Swat, if such an incident occurred in another part of Pakistan, a similar number of people would have come out from their houses to hunt excessively with such cruelty.” he explained and said that some of the people even fought over the number of fish they caught. “ Haq argued this was not something for the government but for the social structure to control. “Today we have proved we are no more human.”

Published in The Express Tribune, January 27th, 2014.

COMMENTS (5)

PakShock! | 8 years ago | Reply

If the locals are this frenzy over fish catching It's ripe time for more fish farm, its technology and of trapping river and rain water for the purpose. Any one interested in fish farming must check USAID website for technical or other assistance. I heard they are helping many farmers grow large fish farms with technology and fish eggs etc in Northern Pakistan to help people who lost business due to terrorism recruitment or bad weather.

Junaid Ali | 8 years ago | Reply I would request water testing laboratories of Swat to come forward and test the river water to confirm the presence of any kind of poison.
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