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Why our fisheries are underperforming

Updated March 11, 2019

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The fisheries sector project is now under active consideration of the World Bank.— Photo courtesy of Zofeen Ebrahim
The fisheries sector project is now under active consideration of the World Bank.— Photo courtesy of Zofeen Ebrahim

Aquaculture is one of the fastest-growing food sectors worldwide. Global demand for fish products has been growing at more than nine per cent a year. But in Pakistan, aquaculture — centred in Sindh — is dominated by low-value, low-productivity carp production while marine and coastal aquaculture, such as shrimp farming, is almost nonexistent.

Comparisons with neighbouring countries indicate the underperformance of aquaculture: it’s growing at 1.5pc annually as opposed to 6.8pc and 9.5pc in India and Bangladesh, respectively.

The sector is growing slowly in Sindh because of constraints on private-sector investment, which exist despite the availability of global trade opportunities and favourable agro-climatic conditions. Slow growth is a product of private-sector uncertainty due to the lack of a sector-specific strategy, spatial planning and bio-security and value-chain constraints.

As the marine fisheries sector, centred in Sindh, is in decline due to over-fishing, a project to transform and revitalise the fisheries sector in the province is on the anvil with the support of the World Bank.

Most of Pakistan’s commercial fish stocks are overfished, with nine of the 14 major species groups already depleted

The fisheries sector project is now under active consideration of the World Bank. It is expected that the bank’s executive board will approve a soft loan of $150 million from the International Development Association (IDA) in April.

A comprehensive study titled The Fisheries Resources Appraisal concluded that most of Pakistan’s commercial fish stocks are over-fished. Nine of the 14 major species groups are already depleted. Only two species groups show any indication that fishing mortality is at or below the limit required to maximum yields.

The large shrimp fishery, worth about $48m annually, has an estimated 40pc chance of collapse in the next 20 years. Furthermore, the marine capture sector is not as profitable as it should be due to high costs.

The fisheries sector is estimated to produce over $650m worth of fish annually. Of this, Sindh produces around two-thirds: an aquaculture and inland capture component worth around $130m and an annual marine catch worth around $280m. Sindh’s fisheries directly employ an estimated 137,000 people in the marine sector and 29,000 people in the aquaculture and inland capture sectors.

The industry supports a lot more jobs indirectly in retailing, transportation and distribution. Sindh is also home to important fisheries-supporting ecosystems, including the Indus River Delta, the largest dry-land mangrove forest in the world and numerous inland water bodies.

Sindh’s fishing communities are poor and vulnerable, with low incomes and inadequate nutrition. In addition to declining marine fish stocks, inland capture fisheries are also in decline due to ecological degradation, overfishing and climate change. Participation in fisheries resource management at the community level is low. More than 60pc of fishing households in communities in the Indus eco-region are living below the poverty line.

In addition, Sindh’s rural communities need improved sources of nutrition. About 44pc of children under the age of five are stunted physically and cognitively. Increased fisheries production could increase incomes and fish consumption. Fish is a highly beneficial source of proteins, healthy fats and essential nutrients that are important for child development and cognition. Aquaculture has the potential to provide communities — those currently engaged in declining capture fisheries, or not involved in fisheries at all — with new livelihood opportunities.

A World Bank report related to the project says these challenges can and must be addressed to ensure that Sindh fully realises the economic and social potential of its fisheries sector. Commercial aquaculture has strong growth potential in the short to medium term, which will provide jobs and export revenues. Small-scale aquaculture techniques using indigenous fish species can support communities’ nutrition and incomes.

In the longer term, improved management of marine fisheries can ensure sustainable growth in value and jobs. The benefits of investing across the sector are thus complementary: commercial aquaculture can drive growth while marine fisheries recover to provide longer-term value. Small-scale aquaculture can support the livelihoods of the poorest.

In the 1990s, Asian Development Bank financed a $15m project that constructed demonstration fish farms and hatcheries, and improved extension, training and data collection systems in three provinces. The project’s estimated annual value of fish production following completion was $13m.

Sindh can harness a similar strategy of public-private partnership investment in the base of the aquaculture value chain, particularly in hatcheries and feedstock plants, to reduce impediments to private-sector investment further up the value-chain. Revitalising marine stocks requires effort reduction to enable depleted fish stocks to replenish over time. Bio-economic modelling suggests that Sindh’s fisheries sector could be at least $35-70m per year more profitable by 2030 under revitalisation policies relative to business as usual.

Realising these benefits requires effective licensing, monitoring, surveillance and control operations, and the scientific capacity to set fish stock targets. It also requires coastal zone spatial planning to protect the ecosystems important for fish breeding. In turn, these require the relevant provincial and federal institutions to have clear mandates and sufficient capacity, the World Bank says.

Returns to both commercial capture and culture fisheries can be further enhanced through improved postharvest processing and value-add. Postharvest processing in Sindh is characterised by poor quality control and outdated technologies. Much of the sector’s capacity is focused on lower-grade products, such as fishmeal. Limited capacity for high-quality and certified processing inhibits access to lucrative export markets.

Poor sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) conditions led the European Union to impose an import ban for several years. It still continues to partially restrict access in a range of markets. Exports, which have averaged about $350m annually in recent years, appear to have become flat. Investments to improve SPS conditions in markets and auction halls, certification standards, competitive benchmarking and market access development can help Sindh’s aquaculture grow, the report says.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, March 11th, 2019