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A Karachi fisherman's tale — In search of lobsters and livelihood

Updated Nov 16, 2015 12:46pm

The sun had just risen and cast a golden-red light on the the beach at Mubarak Goth — a fishing village located in Deh Mann, Karachi.

A light wind blew across the aqua-green waters of the Arabian Sea. The tethered boats of the fishermen, bobbed up and down in eager anticipation of the immeasurable possibilities the new day would bring.

It was an impromptu introduction to Majeed. He, along with his assistant Qasim were scheduled to leave shortly to inspect their fishing nets for lobsters and haul in any fish. He agreed to take me on board on one condition; that I must follow every instruction. I gave him my word. During the course of our interaction, I fondly called him Chacha Majeed.

Chacha Majeed, Qasim and a few more fishermen got on to his boat by wading waist deep in the water from the shore. The other fishermen used his boat as a vehicle to get onto their own since they were tethered at a deeper point.

Chaca Majeed transports other fishermen to their boats.
Chaca Majeed transports other fishermen to their boats.
Chacha Majeed pulls a tethered line to reach the other boats.
Chacha Majeed pulls a tethered line to reach the other boats.

His boat was a humble and small one. At just 18 feet long and four feet wide, it was only big enough to host three people in deeper waters. For my own safety, Chacha Majeed told me to sit in the thwart or the middle of the boat. After the other fishermen disembarked from the swaying boat, Qasim started the engine and lowered the propeller. The three of us began to motor forward into the sea where Qasim and Majeed had placed their nets the previous day.

The morning light began to turn brighter, but the sea breeze kept things cool for us. Chacha Majeed sat next to me. “Our forefathers were shepherds thousands of years ago. Wherever it rained, they would travel to pasture lands to graze their cattle. Eventually, they settled in this village and switched to fishing.”

The fishermen of Mubarak Village refer to the sea as darya laal which means 'red river'. It holds a sacred importance since they are dependent on it for food and sustenance.

Chacha Majeed said that at first they would use sticks to catch fish from the river. After some time they learnt to make fishing nets and sail boats. They mapped out the waters around the village based on the kind of fish they harboured and their lifecycle of breeding and movement in between the seasons. This knowledge was then transferred to them down through the generations.

The wind picked up and the boat charged ahead bobbing up and down as it negotiated the rise and fall of the sea waves. At the same time, it drenched all three of us with its cool salty waters.

We reached the first point where the nets had been anchored. Qasim switched off the engine and with the agility of a young man Chacha Majeed headed over to the bow of the boat to haul in the first net.

With strong arms and youthful energy Chacha Majeed hauls in the first net before Qasim joins him.
With strong arms and youthful energy Chacha Majeed hauls in the first net before Qasim joins him.

The fishermen use flags of different colors to mark the locations of the respective owner’s net. As they hauled it into the boat, the net reflected the morning light and created a silvery white glimmer.

In about 10 minutes, Qasim and Chacha Majeed loaded the first net onto the boat. At the end, Qasim pulled up the anchor which was made up of huge stones tied together. They acted as weights which allow the nets to stay underwater. Qasim headed to the stern of the boat to start the engine once again in order to move towards the second net.

Chacha Majeed sat down to untangle the fish from the web of the fine net. “I began fishing when I was 14 years of age and I’ve been doing this for more than 40 years. In the beginning we would use sails on our boat. We’d leave early in the morning before sunrise and come back around sunset.”

The hills play an important role for the fishermen of the village. They act as points of reference to estimate the depth of the water. As the hills gradually submerge under the water, the fishermen know that they are now in deeper waters.

“We would go far into the river till the hills on the land can no longer be seen. The depth of the water at those points would be around 100 guz (one guz is equal to 30 feet).”

Chacha Majeed's wrinkled foot.
Chacha Majeed's wrinkled foot.

He continued, “We would catch sua, mongra and surmaai. Sua was very valuable and was used for medicinal purposes. It would be sold up to Rs. 200,000. Now you don’t catch them anymore. The last time I caught one was 10 years ago. These wire waalay and gujay waalay overfish in these waters causing these fish to die off prematurely and sometimes, permanently.”

He was referring to the big and small fishing trawlers that use wire nets that have small openings. Their nets sweep across the seabed trapping the smaller fish which are essential for the survival and breeding of the bigger fish and to maintain the marine food chain.

A small trawler heads out into the ocean to fish.
A small trawler heads out into the ocean to fish.

Qasim also showed me the different kinds of fish and crabs that were caught in their net.

Crab — the first one of the day.
Crab — the first one of the day.
Qasim shows a fish that is known locally as Saang.
Qasim shows a fish that is known locally as Saang.

After he finished removing the fish that were caught in the first net, Qasim shut the engine. Both men began to pull the second net onto the boat.

One of the other fishermen from the village passes us as they head out to the location of their nets.
One of the other fishermen from the village passes us as they head out to the location of their nets.

After removing the fish from the second net, we were ready to move to the third location. Up until now they had caught about three kilos of various fish. They had not caught any lobsters yet. But luck was in their favour and they went on to catch three; two in the third net and one in the fourth.

Chacha Majeed had caught one the previous day and together the four lobsters were weighed to be around half a kilo. The selling price in the market for a kilo of lobster is around Rs. 1500. These lobsters are exported across South East Asia.

Sometimes the nets get tangled in the rocky seabed and a strong yank is required to dislodge it.
Sometimes the nets get tangled in the rocky seabed and a strong yank is required to dislodge it.
Chacha Majeed shows a lobster trapped in their net.
Chacha Majeed shows a lobster trapped in their net.

After cleaning their nets Chacha Majeed and Qasim went back to each of the three points in the sea and placed them back in the waters. Once the bow was clear, Chacha Majeed organised the catch into two sacks. One would be sold and the other would be divided between Qasim and himself.

Qasim places the nets back into the sea.
Qasim places the nets back into the sea.
Qasim places a flag with the net to mark their 'territory'.
Qasim places a flag with the net to mark their 'territory'.
Chacha Majeed divides the catch between Qasim and himself.
Chacha Majeed divides the catch between Qasim and himself.
Chacha Majeed sits on the bow of the boat as the three of us head back to the sea shore at Mubarak Village.
Chacha Majeed sits on the bow of the boat as the three of us head back to the sea shore at Mubarak Village.
Pulling the tethered line, Chacha Majeed takes us closer to the shore.
Pulling the tethered line, Chacha Majeed takes us closer to the shore.

Over the course of three days Chacha Majeed and Qasim caught about eight kilos of fish – including those that cannot be eaten. It is split between each person.

Chacha Majeed takes a greater share for himself and his family of 11 members. To power the boat they spent about Rs. 500.

On the morning of the second day Chacha Majeed and Qasim wade into the water to get onto their boat.
On the morning of the second day Chacha Majeed and Qasim wade into the water to get onto their boat.

On the third evening, I went to meet Chacha Majeed. Qasim and him were sitting on the velvety sand and repairing damaged nets. The sun was setting and its golden light bathed them in a soft yellow hue. Their skillful fingers tied the flimsy net deftly to the ropes.

Qasim tightens a knot on his fishing net.
Qasim tightens a knot on his fishing net.
Sitting in the golden light of the setting sun, Chacha Majeed repairs old and damaged nets.
Sitting in the golden light of the setting sun, Chacha Majeed repairs old and damaged nets.

Explaining the relationship between Qasim and himself, Chacha Majeed described it in this way, “Qasim is the conductor and I am the driver of the bus, which in this case is the boat.”

I asked him why he used plastic nets. He replied, “I know they are dangerous and catch fish that we don’t need but we don’t have a choice. Our forefathers would use nets made of cotton.

“Eventually silk nets were introduced followed by these plastic ones. We use these plastic ones specially to catch lobsters. Previously, we caught only fish but after some time the catch wasn’t enough to sustain us.”

Launching a tirade against the free-for-all fishing policy of the Sindh government, Chacha Majeed said that the trawlers fish all year round. During the monsoon season from May to August, it is the breeding time for small fish. They are caught in their fine nets which are then sold as poultry feed. These fish are food for the bigger ones and it hampers their growth and reproduction, hence reducing their numbers.

“We depend on them for our catch and daily food, Chacha said.”

The trawlers are owned by businessmen and leased out to workers who are provided licenses by the Fisheries Department of Sindh. Sometimes these trawlers enter the waters where Chacha has placed his nets. When Chacha ask them to be careful and move away, they threaten him by saying, ‘We will shoot you!’ and continue onward.

Qasim fixes a new net on the beach at Mubarak Village.
Qasim fixes a new net on the beach at Mubarak Village.

He compared the quantity of fish they caught in the past with that of the present. “We would cook one kilo of rice with three kilos of fish. Sometimes we would catch extra and roast it on fire. Today, we cook just a pound of fish and have to mix it with potatoes to increase the quantity. On days when we don’t have rice we eat fish with dates. We don’t fish during the monsoon season. During that time we take loans from our creditors. Once the fishing season begins, we have to pay them back with interest.”

I asked him what his favorite fish was. He smiled and replied, “I like the black and white pomfret. I like them because it is sweet and doesn’t have any fish bones. We don’t catch them in our waters anymore.”

He then remembered that he had to show me his old sail boat. He got up and went to his workshop and I followed him. He said he had bought an old boat and repaired it in three months. It was 50 feet in length and 7 feet wide. Chacha would use the sail and sea winds to navigate the waters for fishing.

Thick planks of wood were the only remnants of the old boat. As Chacha Majeed brushed his hand over them, it felt like with each stroke he reminisced about the fishing voyages of his golden days.

“I eventually had to retire this boat and use a smaller one with an engine.” said Chacha Majeed. “The bigger one is now used to store fishing nets and tools.”

The old sail boat that is now used as a workshop for Chacha Majeed.
The old sail boat that is now used as a workshop for Chacha Majeed.
Chacha Majeed explains how he repaired the old sail boat.
Chacha Majeed explains how he repaired the old sail boat.

Chacha Majeed doesn’t want his children to continue in the profession of fishing. I asked him why and he replied,

“I fear that the produce from the river will end in my lifetime. With the quantity of fish that we catch these days, I think they will end in the next two or three years. What will we do then? We don’t know how to cultivate the land. They will have to find another livelihood to feed themselves.”