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November 19, 2020

As cold sends others home, ‘matka fishers’ stay hot on the trail of catch


November 19, 2020

HYDERABAD: With the winter slowly taking its chilling hold of the region, most of the fishermen living around Keenjhar Lake, a major freshwater body in Sindh, have hung their nets; however, some of the more ambitious ones have gone ‘matka fishing’ to keep their kitchens warm.

Matka (literally pitcher) fishing is a practice in which fishermen use floating copper pitchers to catch fish in this season to earn little income for their survival.

Sajid Ali Gandro, a fisherman, said each worker using this unique practice could catch three-10kg fish daily, which was enough for earning a modest income.

Keenjhar Lake is spread over around 109 sq-km, where people at 12 Mayanis (fishermen localities with landing sites) have been fishing through generations.

Floating copper pitcher has a capacity to hold 20-25kg fish. It is quite a risky way to catch fish. Mostly, these fishermen, using floating tools take fish from the nets and move to their jetties where they keep stock. They are swimmers and remain careful, while taking fish from nets. Because in any mishap or carelessness they can miss the tool in the deep water and face difficulties.

Currently the rates of fish at jetties are ranging from Rs300 to Rs800/kg depending on value of species. Some of the fish species have more demand in the cities of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces, because no local freshwater fish is available there.

According to activists, fish farmers in these upcountry areas usually take the entire catch before the start of winter to avoid loss, as fish species cannot survive in freezing water.

Thus, due to falling temperature all the sources of fish- farms, reservoirs, and lakes- in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are freezing in this season. That is why fishermen from Sindh supply fish to these areas during the cold season.

Prices of same species in the summer drop to Rs200-300kg at landing sites, because the demand declines abruptly after frozen water bodies start thawing in those areas.

There is a strong network of traders, who collect the product from landing sites and supply to Thatta market, where from traders take it for upcountry markets, major cities of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces.

Matka fishing is being practised only at Keenjhar Lake. Elderly people claim to have introduced this method long ago when they used to have specific earthen pictures for fishing. When local potters themselves faced threats to their livelihood, they adopted alternative sources of income and the fishermen community people took specific floating copper pitchers for fishing.

“It was a community demand to have these pitchers to continue with their indigenous practice of fishing, because they had experienced hardships in terms of declining fish catch due to many reasons, mainly because of pollution and overcatch,” said Irshad Gandro, another community activist and member Keenjhar Conservation Network (KCN).

The lake has been an ecologically rich wetland, providing source of livelihood to the local fishermen. It is also a scenic picnic resort, which attracts hundreds of families on weekends and holidays.

The community people have witnessed ups and downs during ecological changes due to increasing pollution, receiving contaminated water through different sources and over exploitation of catch.

According to activists the degradation of the fresh water body and decline in fish stock, which started in the 1980s, has been since forcing people to adopt alternative source for survival.

Sindh fisheries department has released 10 million fish seeds quite recently, which can be helpful for the community in terms of catch and livelihood.

In these emerging challenges, a small number of fishermen continue promoting this sustainable fishing practice (matka fishing).

The price of copper pitcher during this time ranges from Rs30,000-Rs40,000 each. But the community people say the manufacturers now seem reluctant to continue this tool, which does not have any other market. Due to this they have stopped making it, leaving fishermen to face hardships.

In this situation, some community people have adopted a makeshift alternative in the form of a fiber glass floating tool for the purpose. There are 150 fiber glass floating tools being operated on the lake. The price of fiber glass floating tools vary from Rs8,000-Rs9,000. While only 80 floating copper pitchers are being used at the entire wetland.

Community people believe that in the cold many fish species move down to bottom, but some species don’t. Therefore, fishermen rely on these fish species during the winter season when the demand of fish increases in the entire country.

Usually, winter impacts the fishing communities at inland waters during December and January.

Community activists point out that unnecessary use of harmful nets may be the main reason of declining fish catch. Because these destructive nets catch juvenile fish species, some of which have commercial value in the local market.

There are 40 skilled divers, out of which 10 divers can be called at any time for launching rescue operation at this famous picnic resort, Keenjhar Lake to save lives.

The activists said there is a government-run rescue emergency center, but they do not have any permanent diver. They call community divers in case of an accident by transport boat. In return they are paid Rs400-500 only for risking their lives to save others lives or find bodies.

The community youth members are traditionally trained to operate floating tools for fishing. They also take part in copper pitcher race at some occasions to entertain people.

Anyway, the practice of floating pitcher has an old history, presently seems dying, compelling community people to find alternative for survival.

A large number of people, after losing traditional source of income, started working at the coalmines and stone crushing industry in nearby areas. Some of the youth members have become guides for migratory bird hunters, leading them to potential sites to earn a meager living.