Death ships and dead seas

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Dawn, Balochistan, Pakistan

Wire netter boat with its illegal and harmful netting
Wire netter boat with its illegal and harmful netting

“They have finished all the fish in their waters, so now they come here,” complains Dad Karim, a fisherman who has lived all his life in Gwadar, the main port town on the Makran Coast. “What can we do about it? If we try to go near these trawlers to protest they throw hot water on us or even fire bullets to scare us off. They are all involved — even the federal marine and fisheries department who allow these trawlers to come here,” says Karim. “No one listens to us, even our parliamentarians who we voted for.”

In April this year, the fishermen appealed to the Chief Minister of Balochistan, Dr Adbul Malik Baloch, during his two days visit to the town to do something about the issue of illegal fishing trawlers, which has troubled them for over 10 years now.

“The international deep-sea trawlers are no longer a problem as they have stopped coming; it is the Sindh-based fishing trawlers, numbering more than 3,000, which are illegally fishing here,” explains Abdul Rahim, a marine biologist working for WWF-Pakistan based in Gwadar.

He points out that the Balochistan government has banned trawler netting, wire netting and encircling in its territorial waters (Balochistan Fisheries Ordinance 1971) but the trawlers still come, destroying the rich marine life of the Makran Coast. The trawlers are allowed to fish in Sindh and they sneak into Balochistan’s territorial waters since there are more fish to be found along the 749.95km-long Makran Coast. These trawlers illegally catch hundreds of fish through their large trawler nets, which are dragged across the seabed using wenches. The trawlers carry around 40 people while the wire netters, which are smaller boats, carry around 70 people as they are needed to drag the nets through the water.


Not only marine life but the livelihood of fishermen is in danger due to overfishing by deep sea trawlers


These nets end up destroying thousands of fish eggs plus killing larger fish like sharks and the largest fish found in these waters, the whale sharks. They also drown endangered mammals like the green turtles, olive ridley, hawksbill and loggerhead turtles and humpback and bottlenose dolphins and little Indian porpoises who cannot escape from these large nets, in addition to destroying the coral in the Arabian Sea. “We often find dead sea turtles and dolphins lying on our beaches; some species like the sawfish have totally disappeared,” points out Rahim.

Bottle nose dolphin washed up on the beach in Gwadar
Bottle nose dolphin washed up on the beach in Gwadar

According to WWF-Pakistan, there are more than 12 species of cetaceans found along this coast including both whales and dolphins. The local fishermen whose livelihoods depend on fishing from wooden boats with smaller nets have been badly affected by over fishing and are heavily in debt; they borrow money to buy oil and rations to go fishing and come back empty handed. Rahim estimates that “around 300,000 fishermen are suffering in Gwadar alone; they say there is no fish left in the sea, please find us jobs.”

The problem of over fishing started with the international trawlers that were a huge problem for many years. The federal government first allowed corporate fishing to start in 2001 under its new fishing policy and began issuing licenses to foreign trawlers in 2002. Although the foreign deep-sea trawlers were supposed to operate beyond 35 miles of the coastal belt, a weak surveillance network and a corrupt bureaucracy all combined to enable the owners of these trawlers to violate the law.

“I would say that 70 per cent of our fish stock has declined due to the activities of the foreign deep-sea trawlers that are like big factory ships. For catching 50,000 metric tons of fish like the ribbonfish they would destroy 400,000 metric tons of other fish in their trawler nets. There would be so much wastage. They destroyed our livelihoods and then moved on,” explains Mohammad Ali Shah, the Chairman of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF) based in Karachi.

For years the PFF demanded a complete ban and cancellation of licenses of the deep-sea fishing trawlers and the establishment of a sustainable fisheries policy in Pakistan to no avail.


“I would say that 70 per cent of our fish stock has declined due to the activities of the foreign deep-sea trawlers that are like big factory ships. For catching 50,000 metric tons of fish

like the ribbonfish they would destroy 400,000 metric tons of other fish in their trawler nets. There would be so much wastage. They destroyed our livelihoods and then moved on.”

“In 2002 there were 22 trawlers operating in our coastal waters from Korea, Taiwan and China. These fully mechanised trawlers would fish round the clock during the entire year and catch millions of tons of fish through 3km long trawler nets, which are extremely harmful for fish species. For the last five years they have stopped coming, at least not close to the coast, but the damage has been done.” Now, according to Shah and his colleague K.B. Baloch who is based in Gwadar, “It is the fishing trawlers owned by Karachi businessmen and others that are over fishing.”

Baloch thinks it’s because of the increase in Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean and the fact that Pakistan itself has become a much more dangerous place in the last few years due to militancy that foreign deep-sea trawlers stay away from Pakistan’s coast. “They still come, but no closer than 100 nautical miles from shore,” he points out.

Shah says they also stay away due to high fuel prices and depleting fish stocks in Pakistan’s coastal areas. The lack of interest by foreign trawlers has not stopped the federal government from again inviting tenders for deep-sea fishing. Around 100 licenses were recently offered to trawlers in different categories depending on their capacity of catch, in order to allow deep-sea trawlers to operate within the Exclusive Economic Zone of Pakistan (from 20 to 200 nautical miles).

“By giving out licenses (from which they earn a fee in addition to royalties) the federal government is trying its best to attract foreign trawlers but it seems there have been no takers for the last couple of years,” explains Shah. It appears that Pakistan’s fish resources have depleted to such low levels that deep-sea fishing trawlers no longer bother to get licenses.

International pressure in the past decade or so has also forced the deep-sea trawlers to curtail their anti-marine life activity, although it has not ended totally. The day could not be far away when there will be great regulation of the high seas; a recent study by the Global Ocean Commission (GOC) considered the role of the high seas in supporting and replenishing coastal fish stocks so important that it concludes that there is a strong argument for closing the high seas to all fishing. According to the co-chair of the Commission Trevor Manuel: “We can now more obviously see and assess what we stand to lose if we do not take measures to protect the high seas and govern them effectively to preserve vital ecosystem services. The Commission has this new information and on June 24 we will be releasing a report and proposals for action to reverse ocean decline and restore health.”

For now, Gwadar’s main economic activity remains fishing and on its beaches, fishermen are still repairing their wooden boats and mulling about their future. They hope that that the Chief Minister of Balochistan, who acknowledged that “this matter is one of the province’s most critical issues of the present time,” will do something about the fishing trawlers. As Dad Karim points out, “Many of these trawlers are owned by ministers or other influential men who ensure that their boats are never detained by the relevant authorities”. Once the Makran shores were noted for their plentiful sea life — after around a decade of over exploitation of its fishing resources, that is no longer the case.