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July 22, 2020

Life and livelihood: Fisherman turned needle maker


July 22, 2020

HYDERABAD: Mumtaz Shaikh, a small fishing boat owner in Rehri Mayan, one of the largest fishermen localities in Karachi, is among many people, who have left his profession and shifted to another source of income.

“I sold my boat eight years back after realising that fishing was no more a profitable source of income for my family,” he said. “Since then, I, being a mechanic continued different technical jobs, including making hard netting needles (locally known as Torr), which are used in fishing net weaving and repairing.”

Justifying the decision, he said, “It was the consensus of the entire family, including my young sons, to avoid losses and sell the boat. We utilised the money to build a shelter, where we now live safely.”

Besides making netting needles, he weaves fishing nets as well for both small and large fishing boats, he shared. Shaikh has learned multiple skills, including mechanical work, net and boat engine repair work, and tool-making for fish net mending.

He uses wood, plastic and copper for making seven-eight net needles. He sells each netting needle at Rs120-Rs150 and earns Rs1,000-Rs1,500/day.

Though made-in China plastic netting needles are available in the market at cheaper prices, fishermen prefer to buy locally made items, which they believe are user-friendly.

Each boat requires these tools to repair tattered nets on the way to the open sea to make the trip productive.

Shaikh said he uses various sustainable and cheap materials to prepare the tools.

Netting needles started becoming part of the fishing boat toolbox from the time when inland marine fishing emerged.

Earlier, fishermen used to cotton-made thread nets, which were woven locally through wooden needles. Then readymade nylon fishing nets emerged in the market and many fishermen replaced their old cotton nets with these new nets, considering previous nets were unsustainable.

Despite changing net sizes, needles have the same importance among the community people.

Shaikh started fishing as a child along with his father and other relatives. When he grew older, he bought a small boat and started earning to feed his family.

He is a father of four children, including two sons, who work with a private company as daily wagers.

Presently they are jobless because of closure of companies following Covid- 19. They tried to join boats, but the fishing activities have also been disturbed due to the ban on fishing in July.

He claimed boat owners bear the brunt of rising prices as far as fishing activities and needed items are concerned, but complained that the price of fish does not increase in the market. Thus, returns on fishing activities have been low for many years.

Senior fishermen have also realized that at present the people associated with the fishing sector are facing multiple challenges, like rise and fall in weather phenomenon, marketing and price hike of essential items, which everybody requires for survival.

Akhtar Shaikh, a community activist, said there was a large number of skilled workers who could be seen moving from one jetty to another to keep their contracts intact, preferring to live connected with community people, who might offer little work to them at any time.

He said foreign-made tools were not trustworthy among the community people, therefore they preferred to buy local-made items, which they believed were user friendly.

Recalling the recent past, he said all family members were related to different works within the fishing sector, like supplying water, ration and repairing nets at jetties. Women, besides travelling to the open sea with their males, used to work for peeling shrimps at centres within the locality and at homes to earn a little and ease their family’s problems.

However, with increasing commercialism at all levels, he said women too have lost their jobs, except a few, who have adopted alternative sources of income. Similarly, men were also experiencing hard times now.

Akhtar realises that for small-scale fishermen, fishing is no more a profitable job. Many outside people have joined this sector. They have made huge investments to build larger boats and were hiring fishermen from outside for their business.

This rapid commercialisation was also impacting small-scale fishermen negatively. This has forced many of them to sell their small boats and change professions or to work as labourers on larger boats.

Acquiring new skills thus was helping many people like Shaikh to depend on an alternative source of income, while staying connected with their old profession. Many of these fishermen families had been associated with fishing for generations, and switching professions had an impact on their overall wellbeing.

Akhtar said keeping fishing boats at present time was only the business of rich people, who could afford to bear the loss and recover the same next time.

“But poor small boat owners in case of returning empty handed cannot afford to bear the loss of paying for fuel, ice and ration for crew members in each trip,” he added.

In this challenging situation, he said many fishermen workers preferred to join other larger boats as labour instead of keeping their own boat. Thus, the number of small-scale fishing boats was declining in coastal villages.

For example in some neighbourhoods, where there were 25 boats about 10-12 years back, there were hardly five boats now. Other people have either sold their boats to utilise the amount for setting up other work or they have joined larger fishing boats as labourers.