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PAKISTAN: Too Many Nets, Too Little Fish

Zofeen Ebrahim

KARACHI, Pakistan, Dec 3 2010 (IPS) - The last time Moazzam Khan saw sawfish in the Arabian Sea was in 1984. “At one time, salted and dried fish formed a large part of our exports,” recalls Khan, director general of the Karachi Fisheries Department. “In the last 30 years, there may be other marine life that may have vanished of which we may not be aware.”

Greed, environmental destruction and bad practices bring fish catch down. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Greed, environmental destruction and bad practices bring fish catch down. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

The state of fisheries may not be obvious from the busy scene at the Karachi Fish Harbour, where mammoth-sized arks in various stages are being built, and the loading and unloading of goods continues uninterrupted.

Built in 1959 to house 600 boats, the harbour today hosts some 2,000 small and medium-sized boats that jostle for space in a colourful, haphazard manner.

But Khan says these do not change the fact that fish catch has been going down. “Fish exhaustion may be between 30 to 40 percent and it is indeed cause for worry.” Fish and shellfish landing in 1999 was 480,000 metric tonnes, but by 2007 had declined to 340,000 metric tonnes.

At one time, fisheries was Pakistan’s third largest export industry, but today it may be “somewhere standing at the 30th position,” estimates Khan. He cites the example of shark, which sit atop the marine food chain. From 350,000 sharks caught in 1999, this has fallen to 5,000 in recent times.

While factors like the rise in surface water temperature and erratic climactic conditions such as frequent cyclones in the Arabian Sea may have contributed to the decline of fish in Pakistani waters, greed has compounded the problem, activists say.

“In coastal waters, illegal (fine-meshed) nets literally sieve everything out of the water, including all the juveniles that would eventually make it out to sea. There is no check on what species are being caught; often ‘trash fish’ are left to die and then dumped over the side of the boats. These trash are either undersized or are not economically viable, but are important to the marine ecosystem nonetheless,” explains Rab Nawaz, director of Indus For All, a programme of the World Wildlife for Nature (WWF).

But more than the use of the harmful nets, Khan believes the fish exhaustion is due to the “unwieldy fleet size which has resulted in over exploitation of our marine resources.”

Sixty-year old fisher Abdul Aziz of Ebrahim Hyderi, a fishing village 15 kilometres from the city centre, has witnessed a drastic drop in catch. “Fishing is no more an indigenous occupation,” he laments. “There are many who have entered this to mindlessly exploit the marine wealth. They do not have the conventional sagacity needed for sustainable living.”

“They use destructive nets like the ‘katra’ or seine nets and ‘bulla’ or the estuarine set bag nets,” says the unlettered, betel-chewing Aziz.

The mesh size of the nets is so small that they trap even juvenile fish, which are then thrown back into the water, says Kamal Shah, of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF). He also blames environmental problems, such as the industrial and organic waste from a nearby cattle colony that goes untreated into the sea.

Activists also blame feudal lords “with political connections” who are not fazed by the penalty on the use of these nets.

Syed Haroon Ali Rizvi, deputy director at the Karachi Fisheries, acknowledges that “political interference” often comes in the way of his work in controlling the use of these nets. “There are 17 creeks and to cover these areas is an expensive venture. For every raid that we carry out, we spend about 20,000 rupees (233 U.S. dollars) and on top of that, there is a threat to our life from the miscreants.” But Khan thinks otherwise. “The fishermen are all in collusion. If their counterpart in Damb, near Sonmiani (a coastal town in Balochistan province) can destroy these nets, why cannot the fishermen do the same here? If tomorrow they refuse to catch fish with these nets, their employers can’t do much.”

Aziz remembers the time when fishers “would wander just a few miles into the sea and come back with a boatload full of good fish.” Communities had “plenty to eat” and there was much contentment “unlike now”, he rues.

PPF estimates that 400,000 people are dependent on the fisheries sector in Pakistan, with marine fishing providing livelihood for 184,000 people along the 1,000-km Arabian Sea coast in Sindh and Balochistan provinces.

Looking down at the murky water, Aziz asks: “Can you see anything?” Without waiting for a response, he answers: “Till the 1980s, this water was crystal clear. You could throw a 50-paisa coin and could see it lying on the seabed!”

According to official estimates, 411 of the 472 million gallons per day (mgd) of waste produced by Karachi goes into the sea untreated.

This has led to a situation where Pakistani fish and fish products fail to meet world food safety standards, so they cannot enter the European Union market.

Until 2005, transnational fleets were a threat to traditional fishers under Pakistan’s policy of opening up its waters to the former, but officials say this is no longer the case. “We have not given or renewed licenses to any foreign trawlers since 2005,” says Khan. But PFF chairman Mohammad Ali Shah counters: “There is no fish, so why should they roam our waters?”

Khan says the smuggling of fish to Iran is also going on via Balochistan. “By allowing foreign trawlers, the national exchequer was getting some funds. With smuggling, we are facing a far greater loss.”

Fish catch needs to be restricted, Khan believes. “This can be done by limiting the entry of boats, limiting the total allowable catch and ensuring the boats must not stay in the deep sea for more than 55 days.”

Pakistan’s government is carrying out a detailed survey of fish stocks in the Arabian Sea with the Norway-based Institute of Marine Research. “Once the data is available, it will provide us with a clearer picture of our marine resources,” says Khan.

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