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Hook, line and controversy: the impact of illegal trawling

August 28, 2023
tags:#Pakistan, #China, #overfishing
located:Pakistan, China
by:Akbar Notezai
If they aren't stopped, illegal trawlers could completely deplete the fish stock in Pakistan's waters, local fishermen and activists warn.

Gwadar, a city located in Pakistan's southwestern province of Balochistan, is often referred to as the 'crown jewel' of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a massive project with a value of USD 62 billion. Within Gwadar, the Chinese authorities are currently developing a deep-sea port, alongside which lies the quaint fishing village of Mullah Band.

But despite Gwadar's significant role in the CPEC, the local fishermen continue to struggle to make ends meet. In fact, the development of the deep-sea port and other CPEC-related projects in the city has exacerbated their hardships, displacing them and limiting their mobility.

Alongside the longstanding economic and environmental challenges that have plagued the region for decades, the fishermen of Gwadar find themselves in an increasingly difficult situation. Take, for instance, Saeed Baloch, a seasoned fisherman who has dedicated decades of his life to the waters of Gwadar. With the rapid development of Gwadar, including the construction of the Expressway and the escalating problem of illegal trawling in Balochistan's waters, his disillusionment has deepened. During his trips to the sea, he now struggles to make catches, which takes a serious toll on his livelihood.

"The trawlers have been fishing in the best fishing point in the sea," he told FairPlanet. "After the protests of Maulana Hidayat-ur-Rehman, a local politician, the authorities have cracked down on [the four thousand] illegal trawlers, which come from all the way Sindh province." 

For the past two years, Maulana Hidyat-ur-Rehman, General Secretary of the Jamaat-i-Islamy party in Balochistan and founder of Haq-Do Tehreek, a Gwadar-based rights movement, has been leading protests in Gwadar. One of his foremost demands is the cessation of illegal trawling, a practice that has been significantly depleting the fish stocks in the region  

Speaking with FairPlanet, fisherman Baluch expressed his concern that if illegal trawlers aren't stopped, they could completely deplete the fish stock in the sea, similar to what has happened in Karachi, Sindh, where fishermen are now facing increased difficulties.

Pakistan's sea is divided into three distinct zones. Zone-1, which extends up to 12 nautical miles, falls under the jurisdiction of Sindh and Balochistan, and only local fishermen are permitted to fish in there. Zone-2, spanning from 12 to 20 nautical miles, is designated as a buffer zone. Meanwhile, zone-3, covering the expansive range of 20 to 200 nautical miles, is under the control of the federal government.

Since fishing in Sindh's waters does not require a license, both local and foreign trawlers have depleted fish stocks in this region over the years. As a result, many of these trawlers are now turning their attention towards Balochistan's waters.

"These foreign trawlers fish within 12 nautical miles," said Khudad Baloch, another fisherman from Gwadar. "Sometimes, if these trawlers find us in the sea, they throw stones and ice cubes at us to keep us away from fishing. In many cases, we have been injured."

K.B. Firaq, a social activist advocating for the rights of fishermen in Gwadar, told FairPlanet that foreign trawlers have been frequenting the waters of Balochistan, and particularly of Gwadar, since the 1990s. "In the presence of these larger [foreign] trawlers, what can local fishermen of Gwadar get when they go to the sea to fish?" he asked.

Maulana Hidat-ur-Rehman, the local leader of Gwadar, told FairPlanet, "From day one, we have raised voice for the rights of fishermen. Even when I started protests back in 2021, at the end of the year, my first demand was to end illegal trawling." He added that the practice has robbed local fishermen of their livelihoods and the means to support their families, and caused significant harm to the environment, depleting the fish stocks in the sea.

"These trawlers, which come all the way from the Sindh province [in the thousands], are involved in overfishing," said Dr Hafeez Jamali, an anthropologist based in Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan.

He added, "These trawlers use very dangerous kind of nets to catch the fish. In doing so, they catch through their nets small fish and their eggs, posing a greater threat to fish stock and the [marine] environment."

Dr Jamali also stressed that if these trawlers continue unchecked, they pose a grave threat of virtually eradicating all fish stocks in the local waters.

Additionally, the Gwadar district has witnessed the closure of fish factories due to the escalating trawling activities. The primary reason behind this closure is that local fishermen are unable to meet their mandated fishing quotas, and the transportation costs to ferry their catches to the fish factories have become prohibitively expensive.

Mir Maqsood Kalmati, the owner of a fish factory in Gwadar, affirmed that the diminishing fish catch has forced some of his fellow fish factory owners to shutter their operations. "The main reason [for these closures] is the increasingly illegal trawling, which continues to wipe out the fish stock from the waters of Gwadar, and it has to be stopped at any cost," he told FairPlanet. 

China's role

In 2021, well before the arrival of five Chinese trawlers in Gwadar, the Pakistani fishing community was taken aback by the news of 12 Chinese trawlers making their way to the region. According to a local news report, these trawlers had docked at the Karachi port. This development prompted fishermen in both Sindh and Balochistan to launch protests aimed at preventing these Chinese trawlers from being granted licenses to fish in Pakistani waters.

But the later arrival of five Chinese trawlers in the waters of Surbandan, Gawadar, further alarmed the local fishermen.

"One morning, when we woke and went out to fish, we spotted five Chinese trawlers which had come to the beach side of Surbanad," recalled Khuda Bashk Baloch, a fishermen based in Surbandan. 

"That is why we, the fishermen and locals in Surbandan, started protesting so that the authorities stop these trawlers, especially the Chinese, which are more dangerous to the ecosystem of the sea and can cause extinction of some species."

In Balochistan, fishing activities are divided into three distinct categories based on the type of fish targeted. First, there are the small pelagic fish, which are typically found in the water column in coastal waters. These include species like sardines. The second category includes large pelagic fish, which inhabit offshore waters and consist of larger species like tuna and marlins. Lastly, there are the demersal fish, which are bottom-dwelling species such as shrimp, snappers and pomfrets.

China, home to one of the world's largest fishing industries, has surpassed all other nations in terms of its marine fishing fleet. As reported by the UK's Overseas Development Institute (ODI), China's deep-sea water fishing fleet comprises approximately 17,000 vessels.

International studies have pointed to the  destructive fishing practices of Chinese trawlers as a factor contributing to the depletion of fish stocks in various other countries. But despite these concerns, China's demand for additional seafood has continued to rise.

In 2020, a study conducted by Stockholm University forecasted that China could require an additional 18 million tonnes of seafood by the year 2030. This substantial demand increase would likely necessitate deep-sea fishing activities in other countries to meet its seafood needs.

However, in their discussions with FairPlanet, officials from both Pakistan and China refuted any claims of the presence of Chinese trawlers in the waters of Balochistan or any other regions within the country.

Babar Khan, secretary of Balochista's Fisheries Department, and Li Bijian, a former Chinese consulate general of China in Karachi, Pakistan, explained that the trawlers had arrived in the waters of Gwadar due to adverse weather conditions in international waters.

"There is no truth to the presence of Chinese trawlers involved in fishing in the waters of Pakistan," Li added, denying the presence of Chinese trawlers.   

Further crackdown needed

Fishermen and activists in Gwadar are advocating for the government to take action by implementing patrols in the sea and putting an end to trawling activities, particularly within the 12 nautical miles of the shoreline.

In their view, halting illegal trawling to enable fishermen to resume their catches hinges on the government's determination. They argue that the recent crackdown on trawlers has did yield some results, even if limited. Following the protests, they say, the presence of illegal trawlers has notably diminished in the waters of Gwadar and across Balochistan, owing to the government's crackdown on these unauthorised fishing activities.

But fishermen and activists continue are adamant that the government must undertake more extensive efforts. They emphasise that while a few trawlers have been seized so far, their total number still amounts to thousands, underscoring the need for more comprehensive actions by the authorities.

Speaking with FairPlanet, Fisheries Secretary Babar Khan disclosed that the provincial government has been taking action to confiscate trawlers that violate the country's laws by engaging in overfishing in the sea.

"After we made a proposal to the federal government, now we patrol the waters off Balochistan jointly along with the PMSA (Pakistan Marine Security Agency), the Pakistan Coast Guards, Levies and police," he pointed out. "As a result, the illegal trawling is coming to a naught, and we have confiscated trawlers, too. And that has increased the catch of local fishermen over the last several months."

However, anthropologist Dr Hafeez Jamali emphasised that these trawlers employ hazardous nets in their fishing practices, raising concerns about the impact on both marine life and the environment. "Under these circumstances," he said, "the government can do enough to ban the usage of the nets too."

While acknowledging Babar Khan's efforts, the fishermen express their support for the government to intensify its actions against illegal trawlers. They believe that the government possesses the necessary resources to effectively combat this issue and that only through government intervention can they be freed from the scourge of illegal trawling in their waters.

"It is a welcoming move," said Saeed Baloch, commenting on the government's crackdown on illegal trawlers in Gwadar's waters. 

In his concluding remarks, Secretary Babar said, "We will put an end to illegal trawling once and for all in the coming months. And it will likely stop. We have put behind the bars the ones involved in illegal trawling in the waters of Balochistan."

Image by AbdurRehman Ch.

Article written by:
Akbar Notezai
Pakistan China
Embed from Getty Images
Saeed Baloch has fished for decades in the waters of Gwadar, Balochistan, Pakistan. He now struggles to make catches, which takes a serious toll on his livelihood.
Embed from Getty Images
Baluch expressed his concern that if illegal trawlers aren't stopped, they could completely deplete the fish stock in the sea.
Embed from Getty Images
Fishery Secretary Babar Khan said that the provincial government has been confiscating trawlers that overfish in the sea in violation of national laws.