Empty nets

Nadia Naqi
August 15, 2016

INDUSTRY The old adage ‘there are plenty more fish in the sea’ no longer rings true for fishermen in Pakistan. These days, fishermen have to go farther offshore and into deeper waters...

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The old adage ‘there are plenty more fish in the sea’ no longer rings true for fishermen in Pakistan. These days, fishermen have to go farther offshore and into deeper waters to fish. But sometimes they return empty handed. It is a story told across in Sindh and Balochistan by thousands of fishermen who ply the country’s sea to bring home their main, and often only, source of income.

It’s heartrending to see the state of fishermen, whose work involves handling expensive marine delicacies, but they are struggling hard to make their ends meet. Roughly there are four million fishermen in the country. They work alongside the costal belt of Sindh and Balochistan province that stretches about 1,050 kilometres.

However, this community is facing enormous challenges due to resource constraints. Peeping into the community of Rerhi Goth, Chashma Goth in Ibrahim Hyderi talks volumes of their economic woes. There are seventeen creeks in Sindh, which originated out of the river, and one Karachi Fish Harbour, functioning under the provincial Sindh government.

“Government has never given this sector its due importance and no policies to develop the industry have been formulated,” says Muhammad Ali Shah, chairman Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum.

Today, the fishermen are facing issues in achieving their goals as the under water resources seem to be on a decline. These resources have depleted due to various reasons. The fishermen in their greed to net a sizeable catch, employ the harmful practice of using the under gauge fishing net, catching the young fish which in time has led to a considerable decline in their population. Further, lack of interest of the fisheries department and an improper mechanism to check on fishermen’s practices gave them a freehand.

“Yes the fishermen have to be blamed too, however, the main onus of this practice lies with those influential elites who own this business, and for whom these fishermen are working,” says Shah.

The fisheries sector is one of the much unattended sectors in Pakistan that has failed to contribute its decent share in the economy. It is not the fishermen who can be blamed entirely for this, but a lack of interest on the part of the government to develop this industry coupled with other issues has hindered in earning the much needed foreign exchange from this sector.

In order to develop any industry, infrastructure too plays an important role. The country’s fisheries, not only fall short of modern techniques in terms of processing and storage, but also lack modern tools, including boats, nets and a sophisticated system of transporting the catch to the market.

On the other hand, jetty’s that serve as launch pads for fishing too are in miserable conditions. Although the Sindh government has established eight floating jetties in Thatta District, it escapes the responsibilities to rehabilitate the existing ones.

“It is not the responsibility of the Sindh government to construct jetties,” says Ramzan Awan, secretary Fisheries in the Sindh government. “The associations like Fisherfolk Forum, or Fishermen Cooperative Society or the private owners of jetty should improve them, renovate them.”

He claims that the land mafia was involved and the provincial government had no control over the jetties. However, most of the jetties at Ibrahim Hyderi were constructed by the government.

Meanwhile, the fishermen believe these private jetties were a result of the ignorance on part of the provincial administration, as they existed throughout the coastline of Sindh and Balochistan. The fishermen pay a sort of rent for parking their boats and using the jetty as their launch pad.

Although the Karachi Fish Harbour is under the provincial government, the auction is handled by the Fishermen Cooperative Society that pays a commission of 6.25 percent to the administration. Another, Korangi Fisheries Harbour Authority, at Chashma Goth, Ibrahim Hyderi is controlled by the federal government; but it is not fully operational.

Awan adds that this is a business and the government works as a regulator. “Had it been run by the government, its fate would not have been different than Pakistan Steel Mills,” he says.

It is interesting how this entire fisheries business operates. The provincial government has neither control nor has any income from the second largest launching pad, Ibrahim Hydri except in terms of agreed commission from the Fishermen Cooperative Society once the catch from Ibrahim Hydri is auctioned at the Karachi Harbour.

The fishermen believe that administrative control plays an important role, but the need at present is to help fishermen fight poverty, as the fish stocks in Pakistani waters have dropped down by 70 percent.

Fishermen are economically vulnerable to the decline in fish stocks, which directly affects their livelihoods and local economy. Poor and often uneducated, many are unaware of their rights. These fishermen rely mostly on their associations for their welfare.

Pakistan and India, the South Asian rivals, frequently arrest each other’s fishermen for encroachment of territorial waters in the Arabian Sea. There are still 150 languishing in the Indian Jail. In such a scenario, the community and not the government come forward to help families run their day to day needs.

“Although, the state guarantees us rights, it seems the government doesn’t consider us human,” remarks a local fisherman.

Many a times there are accidents in the sea and fishermen disappear. In such incidents it is the association that takes the lead in contacting Pakistan Navy and the Provisional Disaster Management Authority, rather than the government. There is no response and rescue centre at the state level. Even the information of how many fishermen are in the sea is not with the provincial department. This data is only with the customs.

There is a law under process in Sindh, which will develop a security force to deal with fisheries as a profession, keep a check on fishermen and will also serve as a rescue force in case of an emergency, says Awan.

The Karachi coastline, stretched over 135 kilometres, was once the lifeline of the city’s fishermen. But the once mighty Arabian Sea has now one of the most polluted coastlines in the world because of rampant dumping of industrial and human waste.

When five hundred million tons of industrial and municipal waste and 37,000 tons of garbage from various waterways and sewerage are being dumped in the sea on a daily basis; mangrove forests are being cut for selling purposes or for reclaiming land to develop elite societies; and deep sea trawlers are allowed to operate business in their own manner, the fishing sector will bleed by the day.

The situation has turned the fishermen in Karachi against the construction of water reservoirs. They staged a protest in the first week of August against the construction of damns in Pakistan. They believe that water stored will further destroy the already limited resources of fisheries in Pakistan.

Fisheries in Pakistan are of two kinds, inland fisheries, including rivers and lakes, and marine fisheries that include sea. Both are dependent on fresh water. Fishermen believe that storing water will cause a lot of damage.

“Constructing damns will destroy the ecology of the rivers and will also affect 80 percent of fish production,” adds Shah.

The writer is a broadcast journalist

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