MUZAFFARABAD, Dec 16: The entire length of a key river in Azad Jammu and Kashmir has been declared as first ever aquatic protected area for a globally threatened species of fish.

According to an official notification issued here on Wednesday, “the Poonch River, its tributaries and their beds have been designated as ‘River Poonch Mahasheer National Park’ with immediate effect.”

When contacted, AJK wildlife and fisheries department director Sardar Javaid Ayub told Dawn that the 62 kilometre length of Poonch River - from Degwar Madarpur where it enters the AJK territory from occupied Kashmir to Dadyal, where it drains into Mangla dam - was Mahasheer’s protected area.

The move to declare the river and its tributaries as Mahasheer National Park was necessitated by the threat to the population of the species due to a number of reasons, he said.

Conservationists say the Golden Mahasheer, scientifically known as “Tor Putitora” is the largest fresh water fish on earth found in many of the rivers originating from Himalayas. The Mahasheer fish inhabits the southern watersheds of the Himalayas and prefers to live in lakes, dams or manmade impoundments but migrates upwards to the tributaries to locate the shallow, gravel stream beds where it breeds each year.

According to Mr Ayub, the state of Jammu and Kashmir has historically and traditionally been a stronghold of the Himalayan Mahasheer with Poonch River as its preeminent habitat.

However, he pointed out, unsustainable commercial over-fishing, uncontrolled subsistence angling using poisons, electrical devices and explosives, uncontrolled sports angling in the breeding season and destruction of the spawning habitat by extraction of gravel and sand was seriously threatening the population of Mahasheer in the Poonch River system.

Gradual decline in the population of threatened species was a matter of grave concern not only for the AJK authorities but also for the conservationists across the globe, he said, adding the landmark declaration of river as national park would help arrest all such activities.

Mr Ayub warned that from now onwards anyone found involved in any such activity that threatened Mahasheer in Poonch River system would be liable to punishment, including imprisonment or fine or both, under the AJK Wildlife and Fisheries Act 2010.

However, in response to a question he said a community mobilisation programme would also be launched in cooperation with the AJK Rural Support Programme for the benefit of the communities dwelling around Poonch River and its tributaries and dependant on them for livelihood. These communities would be involved in a participatory conservation programme and would be entitled to 80 per cent of the revenue generated from the protected area in future, he added.

He also expressed his gratitude to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Himalayan Wildlife Foundation (HWF), federal government’s Fisheries Development Board (FDB) and Pakistan Wetlands Programme (PWP) for their consistent support in conservation and management of aquatic life in AJK.