KARACHI, Nov 17: The unregulated use of gillnets, particularly the large ones used to catch tuna in the deep sea, poses a serious threat to whales, dolphins, porpoises, turtles and sharks that are being caught as by-catch in high numbers, experts told Dawn.

The issue, they said, also echoed at a meeting of the Working Party on Ecosystems and Bycatch (WPEB) set up by the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) held at Cape Town, South Africa, recently where Pakistan, along with other countries, was reminded of its continued violations of the IOTC resolution pertaining to the restriction on the use of large-scale drift nets on the seas.

“The meeting showed serious concern over the rapidly increasing gillnet fisheries in Pakistan and, subsequently, the high level of by-catch being reported especially with respect to sharks whose landing is already showing signs of significant decline,” said Mohammad Moazzam, working as a technical adviser with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), who, along with Umair Shahid, also from WWF, represented Pakistan at the meeting.

Elaborating upon the concerns of the participants in the meeting, Mr Khan said that the expansion of gillnet fisheries might lead to over-exploitation of fishery resources both inshore and offshore.

The meeting, he said, noted that although Pakistan was not complying with a number of IOTC resolutions, the country’s violation of a particular resolution relating to prohibition of large-scale driftnets (nets that are more than 2.5km in length) on the high seas in IOTC area was serious.

“In violation to international laws which bans the use of gillnets exceeding 2.5km length, Pakistani fishermen are using gillnets of up to 12km. Some vessels operate even in areas beyond exclusive economic zone of Pakistan which is in contravention of an IOTC resolution,” he said.

According to Mr Khan, gillnets were particularly used for fishing tuna, a highly priced species in the international market and important marine resource of the country, and Pakistan lacked laws to regulate its fishing.

Tuna fishing, they said, had increased over the past decade as more and more fishermen were turning to catch tuna after exploiting shrimp resources. A large part of the catch was smuggled to Iran.

Gillnet, he said, was considered a passive and indiscriminate gear which not only entangled desired target species, but also caught large quantities of non-target species of ecological significance.

Tuna fishing, he pointed out, was an important component of Pakistan’s fisheries and it was estimated that more than 500 fishing boats were exclusively engaged in coastal and offshore tuna fisheries.

Eight species of tuna, he said, were known from Pakistan which included yellowfin, longtail, skipjack, kawakawa and frigate tuna. Bullet tuna and stripped bonitos were comparatively rare. “In addition to tuna, a number of other species are caught in gillnets. These include billfishes, dolphin, sharks and sickle pomfret.

Pakistani tuna fleet, he said, comprised entirely wooden boats and it was mainly based in Karachi and Gwadar. “The most important destination for these tuna gill-netters is used to be Somali waters while some used to operate in Omani and Yemeni waters. The fishing operation in Somali waters has, however, completely stopped following persistent incidents of piracy that also involved Pakistani boats,” he said, adding that the situation had led some tuna fishing boat operators with dual registration in Iran and Pakistan to operate in southern Indian ocean up to Madagascar.

Regarding the composition of by-catch through gillnets, he said that it depended on the area of operation. In the coastal waters, the by-catch included predominantly talang queenfish (from boats operating from Karachi) followed by barracuda (from boats operating from Balochistan), kingfish, dolphin, Indo-pacific sailfish, manta rays and many shark species.

“The by-catch of tuna gillnetting in offshore deep waters consists of Indo-pacific sailfish, black marlin, striped marlin, dolphin, threshers and mako. The data of by-catch of gillnet fishing is not recorded separately, therefore, it is apparently not possible to determine any change in their catch over the years,” he said.

“Sharks are important bycatch of tuna gillnet operations because a number of shark species inhabits pelagic ecosystem. More than 40 shark species have been recorded to be caught as bycatch in Pakistan. It is estimated that about 55 per cent of the total shark landings originated from tuna gillnet boats. Their landing, however, has drastically reduced over the years as the species has a low reproductive potential.

Giving his input on the subject, Umair Shahid, said that non-targeted species were caught not just as a by-catch but also when they got entangled in discarded gillnets drifting in the sea. “In July this year, a Bryde’s whale entangled in a gillnet washed ashore at the Gwadar coast. And, this was not a rare incident. This year in Karachi a whale shark was netted and brought dead to the shore,” he said.

Citing a study and information collected from different sources, he said that two to five whale sharks and 25 to 35 dolphins were killed every month in Pakistan after getting entangled in gillnets. Fifteen to 25 turtles also got caught in fishing nets every month especially during winter with reported mortality of two to three animals.

Laws needed

A large part of the by-catch is either consumed locally or exported, according to Moazzam Khan.

Highlighting conservation measures for threatened/ecological important marine species, he observed that although Pakistan was a member of IOTC, there was no programme in place for reducing bycatch in the gillnet operations.

No law in Pakistan addressed the issue of by-catch or deliberate catching of dolphins, porpoises, whales and marine birds.

“Under the CITES [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora], the government can take conservation measures for any protected and endangered species. Besides, federal fisheries laws allow provision for making legislation for restricting use of any gear or to put a ban on catching certain species,” he concluded.

About government measures to check the use of large gillnets, Abdul Ghani Jokhio heading the Karachi Fish Harbour Authority said that the department had started implementing measures to eradicate the use of small-mesh sized nets that catch juvenile fish.

“The next step would be to look into the issue of gillnets. Fishermen’s participation is vital and they need to understand the gravity of the situation as we have already lost a large part of our fish resources. Political influence hampers our initiatives but we are hopeful to overcome that,” he said.

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