A Sindh-based small trawler fishing in the waters of Gwadar.—Sajid Noor
A Sindh-based small trawler fishing in the waters of Gwadar.—Sajid Noor

ONE morning in Mullah Band town, an old fishing settlement on Gwadar coast, four fishermen sit playing cards while others are busy cleaning their nets. They have gathered on a large, raised structure, known as dhoria, where local fishermen gather every morning, and again at dusk, after their work is done.

The Eastbay Expressway project, which cost $168 million and is part of the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), is a stone’s throw away.

But for local fishermen gathered on the dhoria, the Eastbay Expressway — having cut off their open access to the Arabian Sea, which is now reachable only through a concrete passageway — is a constant reminder of how ‘development’ has brought them little benefit.

It was therefore rather fitting that the dhoria introduced Maulana Hidayat-ur-Rehman to the wider public. He is the local Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) leader who last year led a 32-day-long protest in the heart of Gwadar by tens of thousands of Baloch.

Fishermen on the Balochistan coast watch in despair as illegal trawling depletes the fish stock and destroys their livelihoods

A video, which went viral on Sept 15, shows the Maulana on the dhoria looking navy and army officials in the eye while discussing demands. Top of the list was local fishermen’s rights.

(It seems the Maulana’s JI credentials have allowed him to do politics and hold protests in order to replace Baloch nationalists in the port town, where they have dominated the political sphere.)

At the dhoria, Rafique Baloch, a garrulous fisherman in his 60s, points to the main port area with its three berths. “That used to be the best fishing spot where we used to catch lobsters, shrimp, and prawn all year round. We gave it to the state for the sake of development. Now that development is ousting us from Gwadar itself.”

Then there is the menace of illegal trawling. Deep-sea trawlers are not allowed to fish within 12 nautical miles of a country’s maritime boundary, but the practice has been going on since years.

Local fishermen complain that the trawlers make a beeline for the best spots. Some of these are nestled among what they say are mountains on the seabed off Gwadar. “The trawlers arrive there and deprive us of fish,” alleges Gulzar Baloch, unloading his catch at Gwadar’s fish harbour. “When they see us, they throw chunks of ice and small stones to chase us away.”

Pakistan’s sea consists of three zones: zone-1, up to 12 nautical miles, falls in the domain of Sindh and Balochistan; zone-2, between 12 and 20 nautical miles, is a declared buffer zone; while zone-3, from 20 to 200 nautical miles, is controlled by the federal government. More than half the country’s 990km-long coastline is in Balochistan. As no licence is required to fish in Sindh’s waters, local and foreign trawlers have almost gobbled up fish stocks there. Many are now looking to Balochistan’s waters.

Qadir Baksh R.B. is a leader of an organisation called the Gwadar Mahigeer Ittehad, which fights for the fisherfolk’s rights. “Illegal trawling is … backed by a gigantic mafia operating for decades,” he remarks. “Unfortunately, all governments are hand in glove with the criminals.”

Before last year’s protests in Gwadar, trawlers used to rule the waters off its coast. However, their numbers fell significantly after Maulana Hidayat-ur-Rehman listed an end to illegal trawling as the first of the protesters’ demands. That spurred the government and the security establishment into action, which gave the fishermen some relief.

But, according to a group of fishermen, matters are reverting to ‘business as usual’ since trawlers from Sindh are once again depriving the fishermen of their livelihood.

Temporary reprieves have happened in the past as well. The trawlers are owned by powerful businessmen, retired army officers and politicians, making it difficult for the authorities to end illegal fishing.

Gwadar’s fishermen have been making videos of the trawlers’ activities to force the government to act. Sharing the videos on social media, they lament the authorities’ inaction, accusing them of either being bribed into silence or else unable do anything on some other account.

Chinese trawlers’ presence?

At the beginning of 2021, a video showing Chinese trawlers in Balochistan’s waters went viral. The authorities detained five vessels allegedly involved in deep-sea fishing.

In an interview with Dawn, Chinese Consul General Li Bijian said: “The Chinese trawlers were fishing in international waters. Stormy conditions forced them to enter Pakistan’s waters near Gwadar. Through our consulate in Karachi they communicated their request for safe passage to the federal government and the Coast Guards.

“Having been given permission, the trawlers stayed for a few days in Gwadar before leaving.”

Li Bijian proposes Chinese investment in the fisheries sector, such as setting up of a cold chain processing and warehouse system to improve the quality of seafood.

“There is a huge demand in China for seafood, which our fishing industry is unable to meet.”

A recent study by Stockholm University forecast that by 2030, China is likely to need 18 million tonnes of additional seafood to meet rising demand — a demand it will meet in part by expanding its distant fishing operations.

At the Balochistan Fisheries Department, Secretary Babar Khan corroborates Li Bijian’s version of last year’s events.

He adds that Sindh-based trawlers were apprehended if spotted within 12 nautical miles offshore. “But we have 17,000 sq km to patrol and, to tell the truth, the fisheries department does not have the capacity,” he admits. “Even if we try to stop the trawlers during the day, they intrude in the darkness of night. …Now we patrol the waters off Balochistan jointly with Pakistan Maritime Security Agency, the Coast Guards, Levies, and police.”

Since February, 17 trawlers have been confiscated for intruding into Balochistan’s waters. But, according to Mr Babar, Sindh-based trawlers number in thousands, and it will take time to stop them from fishing in Balochistan.

Two senior officials from the province’s fisheries department claimed that when Syed Ali Haider Zaidi, of the PTI, was federal minister for maritime affairs, the Fisheries Department wanted to give licences to Chinese trawlers.

That was why 12 Chinese trawlers had arrived at Karachi port last year. But the department backed off, they said, after protests by fishermen in Sindh and Balochistan.

Destructive fishing practices

The prospect of Chinese trawlers in Pakistan’s waters has been there ever since President Xi Jinping unveiled plans for CPEC in 2015. But what is alarming for those whose livelihood depends on the sea, is that foreign trawlers use big nets and drag them across the ocean floor. These nets collect everything in their path, including fish eggs.

The valuable fish are selected for processing and the rest go to waste.

According to K.B. Firaq, a Gwadar-based Baloch social activist, both Sindh-based and international trawlers started fishing around Gwadar during the 1990s. “But unlike in the past, modern equipment in the newer trawlers makes them extremely lethal. “Fish factories are closing down in Gwadar due to excessive illegal trawling,”

A visit to the area proves this is no exaggeration: illegal trawling has, indeed, brought fish factories to the verge of closure.

“Before the completion of Makran Coastal Highway, there was only one factory in Gwadar and two in Pasni,” recalls Jameel Kalmati, a factory owner who has been working in Pasni’s seafood sector for over 20 years.

Now there are 42 such factories in the district. These employ 4,500 people; there are 6,000 small boats and roughly 50,000 fishermen on the coast of Gwadar.

However, Mr Kalmati claims, four out of 10 factories in Pasni have been driven out of business.

“If the provincial government apprehends 20 trawlers, it leaves 80 still operating in the sea. Thus factories get less than the five to 10 tonnes of fish they require [to be economically viable].”

Mir Maqsood Kalmati, another factory owner, says: “We export fish. In 2016-17, we brought in revenue worth $393.66 million; in 2017-18, $451m; in 2018-19, $438m; and in 2019-20, it was $406.617m.”

As the figures show, the revenue has been declining since 2018. The foremost reason, say these industrialists, is illegal trawling.

Although the authorities claim the recent crackdown against the mafia has revived the fisheries sector, factory owners disagree. Mir Maqsood says the action only offered a temporary reprieve. “The government only comes into action when there is uproar,” he contends.

He believes, however, there is no permanent solution to the question of illegal trawlers.

Back at the dhoria, Rafique and his fellow fishermen are also not convinced that the government can end illegal trawling. Meanwhile, one of them has forgotten his torch in his boat; he sends his young son to go fetch it.

But the lad is shooed away from the underpass of the Eastbay Expressway for not having a national identity card.

The fishermen, it seems, are increasingly becoming foreigners in their own land.

Published in Dawn, August 17th, 2022

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