KARACHI: Lobsters might vanish completely from the list of the country’s exports within a few years as their catch has declined sharply, experts and individuals associated with the seafood industry told Dawn on Saturday.
The government exchequer, they said, was suffering losses because lobsters, like fish and shrimps, were caught indiscriminately throughout the year in violation of the law.
“The overwhelming fishing pressures especially in their breeding season coupled with their slow growth have led to a significant decline in their catch,” said Mohammad Moazzam Khan, former director of the marine fisheries department currently working as a technical adviser on marine resources with the World Wide Fund for Nature.
According to Mr Khan, the total quantity of lobster catch ranged from 3,000 tonnes to 4,000 tonnes per year four decades ago. However, the annual catch now is not more than 1,200 tonnes.
“Every single boat in those days used to have a catch between 300kg and 400kg in a trip. Today, the number of fishing boats has increased significantly and the catch has dropped to a level where a fisherman is considered lucky if he manages to catch 8kg to 10kg of lobsters,” he said.
Regarding the species’ breeding, he said: “Lobsters breed from October to May. March-April is the peak breeding season. A mature female produces about 600,000 eggs in a season but the larval phases are a bit complicated.”
Highly prized as seafood in many parts of the world where fishing of this species is strictly regulated to promote sustainability, lobsters have little consumption value in Pakistan and 95 per cent of the catch is exported. Though China is generally mentioned as the sole buyer of lobsters, earlier exports were also made to Japan, Singapore, Vietnam, the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany and France.
Lobsters are harvested along the entire coastline, mainly along the rocky patches. Important fishing grounds in Sindh are: Buleji, Neelum Point to Cape Monz, Goth Mubarak and Bhit Khori.
Lobster fishing grounds in Balochistan include Khalifa Point, Churna Island, Ras Malan, Ormara, Taq, Sakoni, Astola Island, Ras Zarrin, Shumal Bundar, Gwadar, Pushukan, Ganz, Daran and Jiwani.
According to Mr Khan, 17 lobster species are found in Pakistan. Of them only six have commercial value. They are: painted spiny lobster (Panulirus versicolor), scalloped spiny lobster (Panulirus homarus), mud spiny lobster (Panulirus polyphagus), ornate spiny lobster (Panulirus ornatus), pronghorn spiny lobster (Panulirus penicillatus) and flathead lobster (Thenusorientalis). The catch consists of about 45 per cent of mud spiny lobster, 35pc scalloped spiny lobster, 15pc ornate spiny lobster, 4pc flathead lobster and 1pc painted spiny lobster.
Although fished all year round, good quality lobsters are usually caught in March, April and May and in the last three months of the year.
Ban on fishing berried lobsters
The practice of indiscriminate fishing of lobsters is being carried out in violation of the Exclusive Fishery Zone (Regulation of Fishing) Rules, 1990, under which there is provision for protection of berried female. “Female lobsters loaded with eggs (berried lobsters), or lobsters of 15 centimeters or under length shall not be fished and if any such lobster is caught, it shall be immediately released back into the sea alive and shall not be landed or marketed. For the purpose of this rule, the length of the lobster shall be measured from the middle of the curve between orbital spines to the tip of telson,” it says.
Commenting on the situation, Mr Khan said: “In addition, the use of mono-filament gillnets especially along the Balochistan coast has seriously affected the population of lobsters. Fishermen of some coastal towns are adamantly using such nets in shallow waters, particularly along the rocky shores,” he said.
Giving his opinion, former chairman of the Pakistan Seafood Industries Association Tariq Ikram said that 80pc of lobster stocks had depleted in the country, which was unfortunate as Pakistan had good marine conditions for different lobster species.
“From Sir Creek to Sonmiani, the sea floor profile is sandy but it turns rocky from Sonmiani onward,” he said, adding that lobster exports were now nominal.
On lobster processing, he said three to four decades back the practice was to remove the lobster head, freeze its tail and send it abroad. Later, the whole lobster was used to be cooked and exported. Now, the trend was more of exporting live lobsters.
Sabir Ali, a Jiwani-based inspector of the Balochistan Fisheries Department, said: “Its catch has declined but this is true of fish species, too. Lobster is much bigger in Iran where it is caught only for 40 days in a year. A lobster weighing over 500 grams is sold to the middleman for Rs1,300 per kg and those under 500gm for Rs500 per kg here.”
Information gathered from experts showed that the lobster processing business was being carried out on a small scale along the coast.
A visit to one such facility involved in exports of live lobsters showed that the catch was released into a tank containing marine water for a day after being brought here from different areas. Then it was kept in chilled water for some time that made the metabolism process of the species very slow.
“It gets unconscious but survives. Later, the catch is graded and transferred to thermocol boxes containing an ice bottle and sent to its destination,” Asghar Ali, owner of a lobster processing unit in Kakkapir Village in the Sandspit area said.
Asghar’s unit is being supported by the Sindh fisheries department that helped him install a water filter and provided free assistance on how to increase production.
“There is a marked drop in mortalities after we installed a water filter and started monitoring the salinity and nitrogen levels of water,” he said.