People & Society

Net loss: How illegal trawling is hurting fishermen and marine life

Published 20 Apr, 2017 06:01pm
Baloch fishermen gather supplies in preparation for a long trip at sea | Kohi Marri
Baloch fishermen gather supplies in preparation for a long trip at sea | Kohi Marri

Fishermen in Pasni are furious. They seem ready to do anything to stop private trawlers from fishing in their coastal waters. Niaz Muhammad, an assistant director of the Balochistan Fisheries Department, learnt that the hard way when an angry fisherman slapped him during a protest demonstration on December 28 last year.

A day earlier, more than 100 fishermen in Jiwani, another town along Balochistan’s Makran coast, staged a sit-in at the local office of the fisheries department for the same reason. Outrage over bottom trawlers operating in the area was intense because they damage marine life and are illegal in the province. The entire town of Jiwani was shut down that day in solidarity with the fishermen.

Back in Pasni, fishermen spotted three trawlers around midday on December 27, 2016. They were operating around four nautical miles from the coast. “We asked them to stop fishing but they refused,” says Khairullah, one of the three fishermen who tried to climb aboard one of the trawlers. That started a scuffle. The men on board the trawlers, he says, attacked the fishermen “with shovels, steel pipes, and stones”. They also threw hot water at the fishermen and threatened to kill them.

When some other fishermen came around, one trawler, named al-Sakhi Abdul Wahab Shah Jilani No 20611-B, escaped. The fishermen succeeded in taking control of the other two — named Maryam No 20655-B and al-Razzaq No 16566-B. These were taken to Pasni town along with five fishermen wounded in the incident.

The fishermen took the matter to the Levies, a law enforcement agency in Balochistan. Assistant commissioner Ismail Ibrahim – the agency’s Pasni-based head – registered a First Information Report (FIR) against the men on the two trawlers for threatening, assaulting and hurting the fishermen. He also took the trawlers and their operators into custody.

Three days later, local fisheries officials registered a case against the two vessels and their operators, and went to the Levies office to take them into custody. There they found that al-Razzaq – known as hauda in the Balochi language for its very heavy wire net that drags along the ocean floor and scoops up everything in its path – had mysteriously vanished, says an FIR registered at a police station in Pasni on January 26, 2017, against Ibrahim and a Levies official, Shahid.

The Balochistan Fisheries Department accused the two of collusion with trawler operators for letting the hauda leave Pasni with no case registered against its operators. Qazi Akbar, director of the fisheries department in Gwadar district – of which Pasni is a tehsil – also blames Ibrahim for acting without taking the fisheries officials on board.

Ibrahim has moved the Balochistan High Court to have the FIR registered against him quashed. All proceedings stand suspended as of now.

Trawlers started fishing off Balochistan’s coast in the 1960s, according to Akbar. When Mir Ghaus Baksh Bizenjo and Sardar Attaullah Mengal became governor and chief minister of the province, respectively, they promulgated the Balochistan Sea Fisheries Ordinance in 1971. It was intended to stop trawlers from operating in the provincial waters.

At the time, Balochistan’s provincial waters extended to three nautical miles from the coast — now they extend to 12 nautical miles. Back then, trawlers were not as well-equipped as they are now to fish intensively and extensively.

A former senior local government representative in Gwadar district, who runs his own fishing business, claims a secret deal was struck between the fisheries officials and a trawler operator back in 1993 to let the latter operate without let or hindrance. The Balochistan Fisheries Department caught a trawler, al-Kalmat, while it was operating in its waters some time that year. The officials contacted its owner via satellite phone; he agreed to pay 200,000 rupees in order to have his trawler released. That is how the deal originated, the ex-representative claims. In the beginning, he says, only about 16 trawlers were allowed to fish; each of them would pay 5,000 rupees for each trip.

Marine Conservation Institute, a research organisation based in the United States, states on its website that trawling is unselective and severely damaging to seafloor ecosystems

The arrangement has changed since then, he claims, as many more trawler owners have joined in: each trawler now pays at least 80,000 rupees per month — the amount can be as high as 150,000 rupees a month for a trawler fishing off the coast of Pasni where there is an abundance of marine life. The money is divided among officials from the Sindh Fisheries Department who let the trawlers slip into Balochistan’s waters without asking any questions and those from the Balochistan Fisheries Department who do not intercept and seize the vessels. Total money paid in bribes amounts to five billion rupees every month, the former representative claims. Senior bureaucrats, provincial ministers, politicians and influential personalities all get some share from this money, he adds.

Khairullah says something similar. Officials in both Sindh (where trawler fishing is legal) and Balochistan, he says, “take bribes from trawlers”. One of the men captured along with the trawlers seized in December last year, he adds, told the fishermen that each trawler pays 16,000 rupees to [Sindh] fisheries officials as soon as it leaves Karachi.

Akbar of the fisheries department rejects allegations of bribe-taking. He says his department has always stood against trawler operators. The fisheries officials often confront the trawlers; they have been attacked and beaten up by trawler operators, he says. Niaz Muhammad, the Pasni-based assistant director of the department, says his patrol parties have forced trawlers to leave Balochistan’s waters on multiple occasions — one of the latest instances happened this February.

But Akbar concedes his department alone cannot stop trawlers from operating. It has six small patrolling boats (that accommodate five to six officials) and four large patrolling boats (that can carry about 15 officials) for the whole of Gwadar district, spread over 200 kilometres of coastline, with Pasni on one end and Jiwani on the other. These patrols carry no guns or any other weapons.

Back in 2002, the Balochistan government passed a law to set up a marine Levies force to check trawler fishing, Akbar says. The provincial authorities later advertised the recruitment of 50 men, which never took place, he says.

An effective solution may need to go even further. “Federal government, Sindh government, Pakistan Customs, Pakistan Coast Guard and every stakeholder involved” need to collaborate to check trawlers, says Akbar.

Trawlers and common fishing boats are not different in terms of the quantity of their respective catch. The problem with trawlers is that they damage the ocean’s ecosystem.

Marine Conservation Institute, a research organisation based in the United States, states on its website that trawling is unselective and severely damaging to seafloor ecosystems. A trawler net “indiscriminately catches every life and object it encounters”. These objects sometimes include endangered fish and even vulnerable deep-sea corals, it reads. This “collateral damage, called bycatch, can amount to 90 [per cent] of a trawl’s total catch”. According to the institute, trawlers can also destroy large areas of seafloor habitats that give marine species food and shelter, leaving the marine ecosystem permanently damaged.

Trawlers also pollute the sea with oil and other chemicals. One fishing boat captain claims trawler operators throw diesel oil on fish flailing in nets in order to subdue them and, thus, to make it easier to pull the nets out of the water.

Fishermen in Balochistan complain trawling is destroying their livelihood. “We used to catch fish near the coast but now we need to go far out and spend nights at sea to find fish,” says Khairullah.

Data backs his claims. Pakistan’s 70 per cent coastline lies in Balochistan but the province produced only 1,460,000 tonnes of fish in 2012, according to a report by the Sindh Fisheries Department in Karachi. Sindh, on the other hand, produced 3,460,000 tonnes of fish the same year even though only 30 per cent of the country’s coastline is situated in this province.

At least some of the difference in the provincial catch owes to trawler fishing which is said to bring Balochistan’s fish to markets in Sindh illegally. Around 30,000 trawlers are believed to be registered in Sindh. Not all of them are operational but many, if not all, operational trawlers fish in Balochistan’s water throughout the year — except in June and July when the sea is too rough for fishing, says the former local government representative.

Mir Hasil Bizenjo, federal minister for ports and shipping and the head of the Balochistan National Party, agrees that the sea in Pakistan has become a red zone because of its depleting marine life. “Sea species are in danger of being wiped out by trawlers,” he says.

The government, he says, is working to “put an end to trawling and protect the endangered species”.

This was originally published in the Herald's April 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer is a former visiting fellow at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg.