Illegal deep-sea fishing is the biggest complaint in the port town
wadar is a fishermen’s town. Around 70 percent of its population is dependent in one way or the other on fishing as a source of livelihood. During my visit to Gwadar during the last week of May, I discovered that one of the biggest complaints is illegal deep-sea trawling by large vessels operating from Karachi.
Trawling is a method of fishing where motorised boats exploit all marine life in the sea. Most trawlers use nets with micro mesh sizes and go as deep as the sea floor. These nets not only catch adult fish but also their children, eggs and sea plants. The damage to the marine ecosystem takes a long time to repair. That is why fishing with trawling nets is banned all over the world. Still, thousands of trawlers from Sindh allegedly venture into the territorial seas of Balochistan. There have been mass protests from the people of Gwadar on account of the damage this causes to the ecology and to their livelihoods.
Why do the trawlers from Sindh come all the way to Gwadar for fishing? Fishermen say the reason is that they have already exploited the entire fish stock in the sea bordering Sindh. It has been estimated that 70-90 percent of the fish population along the Sindh shore and 40-70 percent in the sea along Balochistan coasts has been depleted. This is a very alarming situation and merits action against trawling on conservation grounds alone.
It is important in this regard to know about sea jurisdictions. From the coast to 12 nautical miles (NM) in the sea are provincial waters; from 12 NM to 24 NM are federal waters. From 24 NM to 200 NM is the exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Fishing is not allowed in this area. From 220 NM to 350 NM there is an extended economic zone, where international vessels are allowed innocent passage but no fishing. Beyond 350 NM it is international waters.
The Balochistan government has complete authority in its provincial waters and it is up to them to decide who can fish there. The length of Balochistan’s coast is 770 kilometres so that the provincial waters are spread over 21,000 square kilometers. The area is too large for Balochistan’s Fisheries Department to regulate on its own. It’s in this area that the fishermen from Balochistan do not want trawlers from Sindh to enter.
“Our biggest problem is trawling. The evil machines are destroying our sea and forcing us into poverty,” Shahdad Baloch, an aged fisherman, said. He said the local fishermen no longer trusted the government. “Government officials are making billions of rupees by allowing trawling. Why would they want to stop it when we protest,” he said.
After days of street protest led by Maulana Hidayat, Fisheries Department, Pakistan Maritime Security Agency (PMSA), and Pakistan Coast Guards (PCG) conducted joint patrolling in the sea. Trawling was brought under control between mid-December and mid-February.
In November last year, Maulana Hidayatur Rehman held a 32-day long sit-in protest at the gate of Gwadar port. He was joined by tens of thousands of protestors under the banner of Give Rights to Gwadar Movement. The Maulana ended his protest after the government promised a crackdown on trawlers. This helped him win the local government election.
Babar Khan, the Balochistan Fisheries Department secretary, said that after Maulana Hidayat’s agitation, the Fisheries Department, Pakistan Maritime Security Agency (PMSA), and Pakistan Coast Guards (PCG) had conducted joint patrolling in the sea. “Trawling was brought under control between mid-December and mid-February,” he said.
In mid-February, the association of trawler owners blocked the Karachi port channel for more than 24 hours. This suspended operations at Pakistan’s largest seaport and forced the government to allow the trawlers to restart fishing.
“The federal government allowed the trawlers to fish in federal waters only. However, they have been sneaking into Balochistan waters at night,” Khan said. He said the Balochistan Fisheries Department had only seven 14-feet long boats and the smallest of trawlers was 55 feet long. “Controlling trawling is beyond the capacity of the provincial government. When the Fisheries Department boats confront trawlers, they throw stones and petrol bombs at them.”
Another provincial government official told TNS on condition of anonymity that the federal government and its law enforcement agencies at sea – the MSA and the PCG - were lenient towards the trawler operators. “The government argues that if they stop fishermen from Sindh, they will turn to crime. Instead, they are allowed to plunder fish populations,” the official said. He said there was zero-tolerance for trawling on the part of Balochistan government and that a local patrolling force was being established to deal with trawling independently.
A high-level security meeting was held in Islamabad earlier this month. During the meeting, the representatives of Balochistan raised the issue of trawling and the representatives of the federal government were apologetic in their response. Still, no concrete action has been taken to bring an end to the menace of trawling in Balochistan’s waters.
In any case, the next general elections in Gwadar will be contested on the issue of trawling. Maulana Hidayat has already emerged as a champion of fishermen. He plans to capitalise on this popularity wave to land a seat in the provincial assembly. His potential rival, the incumbent MPA from Gwadar, Hammal Kalmati has also become active and has been advocating the fishermen’s case.
Only time will tell whether the political considerations are enough to stop trawling in Gwadar’s waters.
The writer is a journalist covering Balochistan, CPEC, politics and economy. He can be reached on twitter: @iAdnanAamir.