KARACHI: “At a time when most people are preparing for Eid celebrations, hunger stalks hundreds of families that live on a shrimp catch from the open sea. Ironically, this happens every year when shrimp fishing gets officially banned for a month or so and there is no support from the Fishermen Cooperative Society (FCS) or the government,” says Sumar, a fisherman operating from the Karachi fish harbour.
A resident of the Bhit Island located in the Manora channel, Sumar, in his 30s, who otherwise earns between Rs300 and Rs500 in a single fishing trip, has no source of income these days; his children are too young while he knows no other skill to earn a living.
Asked about the reasons for not fishing other marine species as the ban is imposed only on shrimp and some fresh water species, he points out that shrimp trawling done by a special net is simple and less risky than fishing for other marine species that requires certain skills.
“We do get other species but our target is shrimp. Fishermen who catch other species have their own specialized staff and equipment. Besides, one needs to prepare for a whole month if someone intends to do a different kind of fishing.
“But, then we don’t know how the government will react this season; whether it will go for a two-month (June and July) ban or only one. Sometimes, the government decision is taken too late and we fail to know in time which month is going to be banned,” he explains.
The ban is tough even for people such as Abdur Rehman, owner of two fishing vessels that he operates with a 15-member crew. He has so far borrowed Rs200,000.
“The amount meant more for my crew members that depend on me for all their family needs. If I wouldn’t help them in this time of need, who else would?” he asks.
Rehman targets shrimp for four months in summer and then ventures out for some commercial fish species in winter. He considers the ban too harsh this year since bad weather conditions last month had prevented fishermen from going into the open sea.
“It’s a tough time for poor families. Most fishermen survived the banned season by either selling household commodities or borrowing money that shackles families further in debt,” he says.
According to a May 27 Sindh government notification, the ban on catching fresh water fish and shrimp has been relaxed for a month and now the ban will come into effect from July 1, 2014 instead of June 1.
The ban imposed to help shrimp and fish breeding, according to sources, is only implemented in the limits of Karachi Fish harbour while fishing business continues as usual from other coastal parts of Karachi and the interior parts of Sindh. That includes creek areas that are considered the breeding grounds of shrimp and many fish species.
Even then, according to an estimate, about 20,000 to 25,000 households are affected by the fishing ban. Currently, about 850 shrimp trawlers are being operated from the Karachi harbour alone.
The fishing ban’s necessity has been proved many times through scientific studies and experts believe that a two-month ban across the province is vital to save depleting fish resources. Fishermen, however, have always opposed it.
“I believe that a fishing ban period wouldn’t be required if the government reduces the number of boats in operation, takes action against those using harmful nets and limits trawling hours that is done round-the-clock,” says Asif Bhatti representing the Native Islander Fishermen Association, adding that the Karachi harbour had been designed for 700 boats but today 2,500 to 3,000 vessels were operating from the harbour.
The government has so far shown no interest in sorting out the issues. It also plays the role of a silent spectator over concerns regarding the FCS that takes commission from fishermen and is bound under its bylaws to work for their welfare.
A number of fishermen Dawn spoke to complained that the FCS hadn’t spent a single penny on fishermen’s welfare and there was no intervention from the government in the matter.
“Right now, it’s an unelected and unrepresentative body. Instead of appointing government officials, the government has posted eight private individuals on the board while the seven elected fishermen representatives were thrown out of the FCS board last year. We went to court over this and have also got a stay order but the FCS current staff is bent on violating court orders. We are planning to file for contempt of court proceedings,” says Bhatti.
He referred to the late prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s meeting that she held with fishermen of the Bhit Island in 1990 and said that she had visited the village and promised that till the issue of fishing ban was resolved, the government would give Rs3,000 to each family affected by the ban and provide interest-free loans to fishermen.
“She also gave an assurance that a fund would be set up for fishermen’s support. None of the promises were ever met,” he said.
On the FCS, he said, the body earned at least Rs1 million daily on account of the 3.25pc commission that it took from fishermen from a single trip. That amount, he said, increased for boats that returned after 15 to 20 days and brought tonnes of catch.
“Please do visit fishermen localities and you will see how we are surviving amid filth. You would find hardly any functioning school or health facility there,” said Bhatti.
He regretted that though fishermen always voted for the PPP, they were nowhere in government priorities.
Giving his opinion, Haji Shafiq Jamote, a former FCS chairman and an MPA from Ibrahim Hyderi, said the FCS strategy to distribute rations to fishermen families to alleviate their sufferings during the banned season was flawed.
“You can’t have an equitable and judicious distribution of rations as there are hundreds and thousands of families. Hence, invest in setting up vocational centres, schools and colleges so fishermen children could also think and dream big.”
He criticised the government and said: “The PPP government talks of democracy but it has imposed dictatorship in the FCS. People are looting resources but no one takes notice of it. The FCS has neither had an audit nor a general body meeting for many years.”
Dr Nisar Morai, currently heading the FCS, however, rejects what he describes as mere allegations. “There is a whole board comprising elected members and those nominated by the government and we hold regular meetings.”
The FCS monthly earning, he said, was Rs160 million and the society was ready for any audit.
“I have been in the office for only five months and will be taking care of all issues in coming months. So far, we have taken up repairs of the harbour auction hall, a dispensary and a mosque. For the first time in the FCS, a monthly stipend system for retired fishermen has been developed and a plan has been made to send selected fishermen for Haj. Besides, a daily ration is being distributed to help out fishermen,” he said.
He complained that the FCS was not being allowed to open its office in Ibrahim Hyderi so that it could take commission from fishermen residing there and work for their welfare.
Disassociating themselves from the controversy, officials representing the Sindh fisheries department and Karachi harbour authority said the cooperation department that posted government nominees on the FCS board should be consulted on the issue.
No official from the cooperation department was available for comments.
Published in Dawn, July 21st, 2014