No profit in the catch

Jul 11 2013


Video by author

“As a young man, I wanted to work in the film industry,” says 53-year-old Abbas Mal, a respected leader of his fishing community in Karachi’s Ibrahim Hyderi area.

The chances of success in show business were small and the need to earn a more stable income prompted Mal to follow the career path of his forefathers: Fishing.

Little did he know that the ocean’s bounty that has supported over a million coastal communities in Pakistan for generations, would turn out to be a poor choice. With little or no education and very few non-fishing skills, many fishermen living in Pakistan’s coastal communities find themselves powerless to unfavourable market forces and mired in a vicious cycle of debt.

“Ninety percent of our fishermen can not afford to pay back their debts in their lifetime,” Mal says.

Institutional stakeholders such as the Marine Fisheries Department, Fishing Cooperative Society (FCS) and Karachi Fish Harbour Authority (KFHA) have also failed to develop the sector on more sustainable grounds.

Domestic fish consumption is small and the industry is driven by exports. According to data collected by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS), exports of fish and seafood products increased by 4.46 per cent this past fiscal year to $270.3million.

Then why are Pakistan’s fishermen struggling to make ends meet?

According to a 2005 study by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), in the absence of institutional credit and government subsidies the fisherman has no choice but to turn to the informal credit system, which leaves him open to exploitation. He borrows for several reasons, including the acquisition of a fishing vessel, gear as well as daily rations. This complex credit system involves several stakeholders, such as mole-holders (fish auctioneers), ‘beoparis’ (middlemen), ‘seths’ (investors) as well as loan sharks.

Once the fisherman is bound to his lender, whether it is the boat owner or the auctioneer who provided funds for the fishing trip, he loses the right to sell his catch at the market price or take home a decent profit.

“It is the middleman who reaps the most benefits,” says Ayoub Shaan, Information Secretary for Pakistan’s Fisherfolk Forum (PFF). The government should devise a comprehensive development plan that works towards the management of marine stocks, fishing rights as well as the community’s sustainable livelihood, which includes reducing the role of middlemen,” he says.

The growing feeling within the community is that the industry is against the fisherman and those at the top of the supply chain make an unfair profit. Fish processor and exporter, Syed Akhlaq Hussain, explained that it was wrong to demonize all exporters. According to the former FCS Board Member, he had recently been buying shrimp for Rs 600 to Rs 800 per kilo (depending on their size) which he sold in the international market for Rs 900. If fishermen were getting an unfair rate, it was because of the ‘evils’ present in the market system, he says.

“Exporters should have fair practices and they need to come together and agree on a fixed rate based on their own selling price,” he says. Hussain warned that this would pose a challenge as competition was tight amongst them. He also questioned the effectiveness of the FCS in working for the welfare of the community.

Karachi is the main fish market for Pakistan and the only legal export outlet. The FCS runs the market, located at Fish Harbour, through an auctioning system where designated ‘mole-holders’ (auctioneers) charge a commission of 6.5 per cent on fish sold. Half of this is shared with the FCS.

“Ask them what they did with the 3.25 per cent commission they earned on the billions of dollars of fish exports that were sold in Fish Harbour last year,” he says. Part of FCS earnings goes to running expenses such as renting the auction hall at the harbour.

Current FCS Board of Directors Member, Asif Bhatti, recognised the organisation’s failure in protecting fishermen’s livelihoods. He also highlighted the problem of illegal auctioneers in the the market. Bhatti is one of seven members representing the fishing community on the 15-member Board. The power remains with majority members, which are government representatives, he says.

The plight of this community is often cited as one of the reasons why every year the government is pressured into relaxing an environmentally sound, but poorly implemented, fishing ban on certain species. Following this trend, the Sindh fisheries department on July 2 notified the withdrawal of a two-month seasonal ban on catching shrimp.

“A fisherman can not even afford a 24-hour break from his only source of livelihood,” Mal says. While understanding the necessity of the yearly ban to protect Marine stocks, Mal explained how small fishermen continue to fish during the ban season and sell their catch at lower rates.

Frustrated with PFF’s failure to change key policies as well the Sindh government’s inability to address regulatory gaps in the fishing industry, residents in Ibrahim Hyderi are slowly cultivating a culture of leadership and social work within the community.

“We want the next generation to be more educated and globally aware,” Mal says.

One will often find Mal conducting an informal lesson under a straw shed at one of Hyderi’s main jetties. With nothing more than a few chart-paper drawings illustrating fishing and navigation techniques, he hopes to preserve indigenous fishing knowledge, cultural practices as well as advocate for new fishing techniques.

For residents working to implement change in Hyderi, their main objective is to raise awareness amongst youth about the role of education in uplifting the community’s standard of living. Mal believes that this change can only come if the younger generation were to participate on all stages of the supply chain, including international trade.

“Their grandfathers and fathers have spent their entire lives at sea without earning beyond two meals a day. We do not want the same for them,” he says.