The scourge of illegal trawling

Published August 17, 2022
<p>A small Sindh based trawler is fishing illegally in the waters of Gwadar, Balochistan. —Sajid Noor</p>

A small Sindh based trawler is fishing illegally in the waters of Gwadar, Balochistan. —Sajid Noor

ONE morning in Mullah Band town, an old fishing settlement on the Gwadar coast, four fishermen sit playing cards while others are busy cleaning their nets. They have gathered on a large, roughly 300 sq ft covered structure known as dhoria. Open on all sides and raised on cement pillars some eight feet high, this is where local fishermen collect every morning, and again at dusk after their work is done. The Eastbay Expressway, 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.

Read: Fishermen reject Gwadar’s Eastbay Expressway model

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 led a 32-day long protest in the heart of Gwadar port town by tens of thousands of Baloch demanding their rights. A video that went viral on Sept 15 shows the maulana on the dhoria looking navy and army officials in the eye while discussing the people’s demands, one of the principal ones among them being local fishermen’s rights.

(As of now, it seems the maulana has been given space by some quarters to do politics and hold protests on the issue of illegal trawling in order to replace the Baloch nationalists in the port town, where they have traditionally dominated the political sphere. Compared to the nationalists, the maulana’s JI credentials have helped him become acceptable in the corridors of power, even though he is doing politics in the name of Baloch rights.)

At the dhoria, Rafique Baloch, a garrulous fisherman in his 60s with henna-ed hair comes to watch his compatriots playing cards. They look despondent while discussing the fishermen’s plight. “Can you see the port from here?” Rafique asks, pointing to the three berths coming up in the shadow of the Koh-e-Batil mountain overlooking the hammer-head shaped Gwadar town. “That used to be the best fishing and breeding 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.

A small Sindh based trawler is fishing illegally in the waters of Gwadar, Balochistan. —Sajid Noor
A small Sindh based trawler is fishing illegally in the waters of Gwadar, Balochistan. —Sajid Noor

“On top of that, we aren’t allowed to go out to sea when there’s VIP movement. In fact, sometimes after we’ve been out fishing the whole night, and are returning to shore to unload our catch at Gwadar Fish Harbour, we’re made to wait at sea on our boats from dawn to dusk on the pretext of VIP movement. We run out of food and water while waiting because we take limited provisions with us.”

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 with impunity. The arrival of 12 new Chinese trawlers at Karachi harbour in October 2020 had exacerbated the fishermen’s concerns.

Local fishermen complain that the trawlers make a beeline for the best spots. Some of these locations are nestled among what they say are the mountains on the seabed off Gwadar. One of them is in fact called Koh-i-Dap (the mouth of the mountain). “Trawlers arrive there and deprive us of the fish,” alleges Gulzar Baloch, while unloading his catch at Gwadar Fish Harbour. “When they come across us, they throw chunks of ice and small stones at us and chase us away.”

Another fisherman adds: “Sometimes they forcibly take away our catch from us.”

Pakistan divides its sea into three zones: zone-1, up to 12 nautical miles, falls in the domain of Sindh and Balochistan; zone-2, between 12 to 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. With no licence required to fish in Sindh’s waters, local and foreign trawlers have almost gobbled up fish stocks there. Most are now looking to Balochistan’s waters.

Boats are parked in a fish harbour in the district of Gwadar. —Sajid Noor
Boats are parked in a fish harbour in the district of Gwadar. —Sajid Noor

In Gwadar town, known as the crown jewel of the $62bn CPEC, Qadir Baksh R.B. is a local leader of an organisation called the Gwadar Mahigeer Ittehad, which fights for the fisherfolk’s rights. “Illegal trawling is backed by a gigantic mafia that has been operating since decades,” he remarks. “Unfortunately, all governments, including the current one, are hand-in-glove with the criminals.”

Interviews with fishermen suggest that before the widespread protests in Gwadar, trawlers used to rule the waters off its coast. However, their numbers decreased signficantly after Maulana Hidayatullah listed an end to illegal trawling as the first of the protestors’ demands. That spurred the government and security establishment into action, which gave the fishermen some relief.

But according to a group of fishermen and social activists, matters are reverting to ‘business as usual’, with trawlers from Sindh once again depriving the local 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. However, the issue has worked to the advantage of the Maulana Hidayatullah, who is also aware that putting an end to it is not possible. In the recent local government elections, he rightly used the fishermen’s woes, especially illegal trawling, to defeat his opponents in Gwadar.

Read: The rise of Maulana

Gwadar locals, fishermen among them, have been capturing the trawlers’ resurgent activities on their mobiles to force the government, particularly the fisheries department, 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. The height of injustice is that sometimes the government tries to intimidate the locals for filming the trawlers.

A fisherman in Gwadar is busy cleaning his net with his son. —Sajid Noor
A fisherman in Gwadar is busy cleaning his net with his son. —Sajid Noor

One of them is Sajid Umer Baloch, a teenager from the tiny fishing village of Churbandan in Gwadar district, 25 kilometres from Pasni town. He made a video of a trawler that he spotted off the Churbandan coast and shared it on several Whatsapp groups and other social sites because, he told local reporters in his hometown, the trawlers were wiping out the catch in their traditional their fishing areas and leaving nothing for their older generation for whom the sea is their means of livelihood. He added that the trawlers are also fishing illegally within 12 nautical miles. “Eight levies officials in two Corolla cars approached me in Churbandan and asked if I had made the video and shared it,” he said.

Local fishermen accuse the provincial government of being indifferent to their misery. They claim that sometimes they themselves take the initiative to intercept foreign vessels inside the country’s maritime zone. Once, when they spotted three trawlers in Pasni and told the operators to go away, they were attacked with shovels and steel pipes.

Chinese trawlers’ presence?

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

In an interview with Dawn in Karachi, Chinese Consul General Li Bijian says: “The Chinese trawlers were fishing in international waters. Stormy conditions at sea forced them to enter Pakistan’s waters in the Gwadar area. 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. Chinese companies have instructions to abide by the law and fish in international waters, and avoid doing so in territorial waters of regional countries.”

According to Mr Bijian, China has always been interested in the betterment of fishermen along the Balochistan coast, which is why they provided them with small boat engines, fishing nets, special incubators and marine life-saving kits and other material.

While lauding the quality of sea food available in Pakistan, he describes the techniques of fishing used here as outdated; fishermen, he said, need to upgrade to large fishing vessels, for one thing. “This could be an example of cooperation — Pakistan imports large fishing boats from China while Pakistan exports sea food to China.”

Mr Bijian also offers Chinese investment in the fisheries sector, suggesting the setting up of a cold chain processing and warehouse system to improve the quality of seafood which China would be willing to import. “We have a massive population and 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 up to 18 million tonnes additional seafood to meet the rising demand — a demand it will meet in part by expanding its distant fishing operations.

Foreign trawlers have been scouting for fish in Balochistan in the past. But the addition of Chinese trawlers to the list does not augur well for our fishermen. In October last year, before the Gwadar protests, Mr Bijian had revealed that his country had been providing assistance to fishermen in Gwadar for the last several years. But the assistance, which included 15 boats and solar panels, has failed to address fishermen’s concerns about deep-sea fishing by Chinese trawlers. The practice has depleted fish stocks in the waters off Gwadar, especially those from Sindh that are in the sea sometimes for weeks.

Haji Khudad Wajo, a fisherman in Gwadar, concedes that the community received some assistance, but emphasises it is “unacceptable at the cost of our livelihood. Deep-sea trawling, whether by local or Chinese trawlers, will wipe out [the fishermen community] from the map of Gwadar once and for all.”

A fisherman is posing for a picture in Gwadar. — Sajid Noor
A fisherman is posing for a picture in Gwadar. — Sajid Noor

Karachi-based Mohammad Moazzam Khan is one of the leading marine experts in Pakistan, and currently working as technical advisor at the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature)—Pakistan. He says there is no truth to the fishermen community’s claims about the presence of Chinese trawlers.

“Since 2005, there have been no Chinese trawlers in the waters of Balochistan,” he tells Dawn, adding, “the Chinese trawlers that were recently in the news had arrived in Balochistan’s waters via innocent passage, because one of the trawlers had some technical issue.” (Under international law, the term ‘innocent passage’ refers to the right of a ship or aircraft to enter and pass through another’s territory so long as it is not prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the other state source.)

He maintains that the Pakistan Marine Security Agency (PMSA) has been implementing the Deep Sea Fishing Policy, which does not allow deep sea fishing by foreign trawlers in our territory. “PMSA strictly monitors licensed foreign and local fishing trawlers through air and surface surveillance,” he says. “PMSA has the satellite-based Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) for round-the-clock real-time monitoring of deep sea fishing vessels which is why it is not possible for foreign trawlers, including Chinese, to come to our waters illegally to fish.”

At the Balochistan Fisheries Department, the department secretary Babar Khan corroborates Mr Bijian and Mr Moazzam Khan’s version of events. As for the Sindh-based trawlers, he says they were apprehended that whenever they were spotted within 12 nautical miles off the shore. “But we have an area of 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. Following our proposal to the federal government, now we patrol the waters off Balochistan jointly along with the PMSA, the Pakistan Coast Guards, Levies, and police.”

Notifications available with Dawn show that on Feb 14, 2022, the Balochistan government delegated the powers of fisheries officer to the joint patrolling team at Gwadar, Pasni, Jiwani, Damb, Hub, Ormara, Churna Island, and Kund Malir.

Since then, as per local media reports, 17 trawlers have been confiscated for intruding into the Balochistan waters. Mr Babar claims that the fishing industry, including its cold storage component, has improved following the crackdown against the trawler mafia through joint action by the police, Levies, and MSNA. According to him, Sindh-based trawlers number in the thousands, and it will take time to stop them from fishing in Balochistan.

Two senior officials from the province’s fisheries department also admit in private conversations with Dawn that they had indeed been unable to put an end to illegal trawling for want of resources. Interestingly though, they also claim that while PTI’s Syed Ali Haider Zaidi was federal minister for marine affairs, the Marine Fisheries Department wanted to give licences to Chinese trawlers, which was why the 12 Chinese trawlers had arrived at Karachi port last year. The department backed off, they said, only because of protests by fishermen communities in Sindh and Balochistan.

Behram Baloch, Dawn’s Gwadar-based correspondent, had reported that “hundreds of fishermen, political workers and members of civil society staged a protest rally against the federal government for granting Chinese trawlers fishing rights in Gwadar by issuing them licences”.

Last but not least, Mr Bijian tells Dawn that if Chinese trawlers are given licences, they would be interested in fishing in Pakistan as per rules and regulations and local laws.

Destructive fishing practices

The prospect of Chinese trawlers in our waters has been there even since President Xi Jinping unveiled plans for CPEC in 2015. But what is doubly alarming is that foreign trawlers use huge nets and drag them across the ocean floor. These collect everything in their path, including fish eggs. The commercially valuable fish are selected for processing, while the rest goes to waste. Conservationists rightly describe the practice as causing ecological devastation.

“Both Sindh-based and international trawlers, including Korean ones, started fishing in the waters of Gwadar in the 1990s,” says K.B. Firaq, a Gwadar-based Baloch social activist. “But unlike in the past, the modern equipment in the newer trawlers makes them highly destructive. In fact, due to excessive illegal trawling, fish factories are closing down in Gwadar district.”

Read: The travails of Gwadar’s fishermen

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

Built during 2002 and 2004, National Highway 10 — commonly known as Makran Coastal Highway — starts from Karachi and runs 653km through the south of Balochistan, ending at the border with Iran.

Interviews with fish factory owners suggest that until 2000, a lot of the catch used to go waste due to lack of fish processing and cold storage facilities. At the time, Gwadar was not connected to Karachi via the Makran Coastal Highway and had no access to the international market.

Situated 130 km east of Gwadar port, Pasni is a coastal town where the sea provides a colorful backdrop to the plain landscape. Although it used to be the economic hub of the region’s coastal belt, the town today bears a deserted and rundown look.

“Before the construction of the Makran Coastal Highway, there was only one factory in Gwadar town and two in Pasni,” says Jameel Kalmati, who has been working in Pasni’s seafood and fisheries sector for over 20 years. Now, according to some fish factory owners in Gwadar, there are 42 such factories in the district employing 4,500 people; there are also, they say, 6,000 small boats, and roughly 50,000 fishermen on the coast of Gwadar.

According to Mr Kalmati, much like fish factories in Gwadar, those in Pasni too are burdened with high electricity charges they cannot afford to pay. “Four out of 10 factories have closed in Pasni … which has left hundreds of workers jobless. If the provincial government apprehends 20 trawlers, that 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].”

A fish factory owner in Gwadar, Mir Maqsood Kalmati, speaks to Dawn in his office along with several other such industrialists, in the west coast area known as Padi Zar. “We also export fish. In 2016-17, we brought in revenue worth $393.66 million; in 2017-18, it was $451m; in 2018-19, it was $438m; and, in 2019-20, it was $406.617m.”

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

Another factory owner, Haji Dad says: “The catch we found on board the trawlers was not from the deep sea, but had been caught within 12 nautical miles. If this is not stopped, it can destroy the entire economy of the coastal areas.”

Gwadar, which is not yet connected to the national grid and is being provided electricity from Iran, has been facing severe power shortage, but the industrialists claim they are inundated every month with power bills running into millions of rupees. Mir Maqsood’s electricity bill for November last year (which was when Dawn visited them) shows dues of Rs1,758,738. The owner of Gold Starfish factory says he can better that: his bill is for Rs2,411,276.

“The overbilling has nothing to do with electricity consumption,” concedes a Water and Power Development Authority official in Gwadar, requesting anonymity as he is not allowed to speak to media. “The government imposes taxes upon them, which is why their bills are in millions.”

Although the authorities claim their recent crackdown against the trawler mafia has revived the fisheries sector, the factory owners disagree. Mir Maqsood says the action only offered a temporary reprieve. “The government only comes into action when there is an uproar,” he contends. He believes, however, there is no permanent solution to the question of illegal trawlers.

A similar view is expressed by Hafeez Jamali, a social anthropologist from Balochistan in his thesis, A Harbour in the Tempest: Megaprojects, Identity and the Politics of Place in Gwadar, Pakistan where he mentions how protests by fishermen two decades ago had put pressure on the authorities. As a result, the provincial fisheries department had arrested and prosecuted the operators of more than 60 trawlers fishing illegally in Balochistan’s waters between 2001 and 2002. “Given that anywhere from 500 to 1,000 trawlers were operating along the Mekran Coast around that time, this was just a drop in the bucket,” he writes.

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

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