Fishers in the city of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea are dreading China’s growing interest in Pakistan’s fishing sector. “If it means their trawlers will eat up more of our fish stock, we don’t want any investment or assistance from the Chinese,” said Haji Khudad Wajo, the leader of the community in the district which is being developed as the trade hub at the centre of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Like Wajo, scores of fishermen along Pakistan’s 990 km coastline have been crushed by the devastating effects of unregulated local and foreign fishing trawlers that have “caused a genocide of fish”.
On the eve of 2021, a top Chinese diplomat shared that country’s plans to expand the local fishing industry in an interview with a Pakistani newspaper.
“You [Pakistan] have rich resources when it comes to fisheries… Chinese investors are very much interested in investing in the fishing sector in Pakistan,” said Consul General Li Bijian.
Chinese investors are very much interested in investing in the fishing sector in Pakistan.Consul General Li Bijian
He talked of bigger boats and modern fishing tools for the fishers in Gwadar and said there was a dire need to build processing factories. “The local fishermen need to increase their fishing capacity to help export the seafood,” he said, adding that locals need to go into the deep sea for fishing as “fishing is not profitable” on seashores.
Fish stocks exhausted already
The declaration has deeply worried fishers in both Sindh and Balochistan provinces, where the near 700,000 strong fishing community is already struggling to survive owing to fast-depleting fish stocks.
A 2015 study on Pakistan’s fisheries by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) revealed that not a single resource in Pakistan’s marine fisheries is being fished sustainably. It concluded that Pakistan’s marine resources are overfished and have been dwindling as part of an “ongoing ecological disaster”.
Though Li spoke of protecting the ecosystem, it is unclear what steps China will take to protect marine life and the local fishers in Balochistan.
China’s apparently insatiable demand
With a soaring demand for seafood at home, China has one of the world’s biggest fishing industries. Britain’s Overseas Development Institute (ODI) puts the size of China’s deep water fishing fleet at 17,000 vessels, far ahead of any other country.
International studies have linked destructive fishing practices of Chinese trawlers with drying up of fish stocks in several countries.
A recent study by Stockholm University forecasts that by 2030, China is likely to need up to 18 million tonnes of additional seafood to satisfy projected domestic consumption – a demand it will meet in part by expanding its distant water fishing operations.
In Pakistan, fishers have for decades protested deep sea trawling, and in recent years have reported a sharp decrease in their catch. In Gwadar, where China has invested billions through CPEC projects, locals are already reeling from being displaced due to the development of the port which promises to be the gateway for China’s trade ambitions.
“We are totally against these fishing trawlers. They will wipe out the entire fish stock and destroy our community,” said Saeed Baloch of Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF). “There are already 12 Chinese trawlers docked at the Karachi port and we have been informed there will be 60 more trawlers in the future. If they are allowed to fish, the worst is yet to come.”
We are totally against these fishing trawlers. They will wipe out the entire fish stock and destroy our community.Saeed Baloch, Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum
Baloch’s fears about the presence of the Chinese deep-sea trawlers docked at the port of Karachi are shared by many fishers. The arrival of these vessels in October 2020 sparked protests as local fishermen feared that the federal government was secretly allowing Chinese ships to fish in these waters. Since the government had not publicly denied giving these trawlers fishing licences, the community feared the worst.
What fishing price policy?
Pakistan’s federal government created a deep-sea fishing policy in 2018 to regulate these issues, but it is viewed with scepticism both by fishers and provincial governments.
Moazzam Khan, an advisor on marine fisheries for WWF-Pakistan, said the 2018 policy was made to manage the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone.
“The 2018 policy was made for this purpose that EEZ fishing should be managed, but it was resisted by fishermen as there is a socioeconomic consequence. We can and should modify our fisheries but abruptly doing it will be disastrous for tens of thousands of people. For instance, abolishing the destructive gillnet practice is necessary but without an alternative what will fishermen do?”
As for the arrival of big Chinese vessels, Khan said it would result in the “collapse of the fisheries”.
“These vessels will be competing with local fishermen and the coastal community simply cannot compete,” he told The Third Pole.
“There is hardly any fish left for locals to catch, how and why are the Chinese being allowed to fish in our waters,” Khan asked, adding that at around 2,500, Pakistan’s private trawler fleet is already four times the advised capacity.
Mystery surrounds Chinese trawlers
PFF representative Baloch said the docking of Chinese deep sea trawlers at the port of Karachi is a “conspiracy on the part of the federal government which will further push the already beleaguered fishermen community to the wall.”
He alleged it indicates “clearly” that the federal government is going to give licences to the Chinese trawlers in the coming days.
“The Minister for Maritime Affairs has said he was unaware of the arrival of the said trawlers at the jetty,” Saeed said, “How is that possible? The federal government has intentionally allowed them [here] to give them licences.”
Baloch said these foreign trawlers, if allowed to operate, will deplete marine life and add to the growing conflict between Sindh and Balochistan over the presence of trawlers from Sindh.
Scores of fishers took to the streets to protest the presence of Chinese ships in Karachi.
“We are totally against both local and foreign trawlers in Balochistan,” he said, adding that scores of fishers took to the streets to protest the presence of Chinese ships in Karachi.
Moazzam Khan said the Chinese are eager to fish in Pakistan waters as they can sell the catch back home duty-free. “If a Chinese vessel comes here to fish, the imported fish will be duty free. Even if the Chinese vessels are docked at the port, their name is used to catch fish in the Indian Ocean and sell it duty-free.”
Trawlers use large nets with heavy weights that are dragged across the floor of the ocean to collect everything in their path – a practice conservationists say is deeply destructive.
Fisher Ilyas Bengali, a resident of Machar colony in Karachi who has been fishing in the Sindh and Balochistan deep sea waters for several years, told The Third Pole, “These trawlers possess narrowly woven nets that catch fish—small and big—along with eggs, to wipe out aquatic life. Due to the absence of fish, we are now compelled to go to Balochistan to fish in our small boats.”
Many of the local trawlers are fishing illegally, Bengali said, adding that his anxieties have been compounded with the arrival of Chinese trawlers in Sindh’s coastal area last year.
Anthropologist Hafeez Jamali, who has spent considerable time working with fishers in Gwadar, said, “Deep sea trawling has taken place in Pakistan’s coastal areas since the 1990s. Without a proper check and balance system, the trawlers have pretty much depleted the fisheries stock in the Indus delta. Today, they fish in the Makran coastal region from time to time out of desperation, because there is very little left at their sites in Sindh.”
“As their vessels move, the net sweeps the sea floor, capturing every living thing in the process, whether it is needed or not. When the trawl net is brought aboard the vessel, the valuable commercial fish are taken out and the rest – eggs and dead fish – are thrown out.”
Deep sea trawling causes ecological destruction, said Jamali, as it enables overfishing and simultaneously destroys nesting grounds in the sea.
While the fisheries law prohibits trawlers from operating at a distance of 12 nautical miles “they are not concerned about the law due to their greed for valuable commercial fish,” Jamali said.
K.B. Firaq, an advocate of better rights for fishers, said illegal trawling in the waters of Balochistan is an old phenomenon. “We have witnessed it as far back as the 1970s. Recently, when I visited Jiwani in the Gwadar district, I could see a trawler in the water, near the beach. They operate with ease and result in the genocide of fish.”
Though illegal in Balochistan, Firaq said these trawlers manage to operate as their operators “are hand in glove with the authorities”.
Mohammad Akbar Askani, advisor to Balochistan’s chief minister, confirms this problem.
“I suspended 12 office bearers from the fisheries department in Jiwani, a port town in Gwadar district, who were involved in allowing the trawlers to fish illegally,” Askani told The Third Pole.
I suspended 12 office bearers from the fisheries department in Jiwani, a port town in Gwadar district, who were involved in allowing the trawlers to fish illegally.Mohammad Akbar Askani, advisor to Balochistan’s chief minister
“Sometimes, especially in the darkness of the night, these [trawlers in zone 3] intrude into our waters [zone 1]. We apprehend them but sometimes, due to their size and the sheer number of crew, they seriously injure our people.”
Aziz Sanghur, Karachi based activist who writes on fishers’ rights, said: “Influential and wealthy people in Karachi own these trawlers. Due to lack of fish in Sindh waters, these trawlers go into Balochistan waters for deep sea fishing.”
Instead of putting an end to trawling, he said, it appears there is an attempt to legalise it. “This will have dire consequences not only for fishermen and the ecology but also for Pakistan’s fish export.”
At the Pasni port jetty in Gwadar, fisher Naseem Baloch said his community is barely surviving.
“In the past when we would go into the sea, each of us would earn from PKR15,000 to PKR20,000 [USD93 to USD 125] from the sale of fish,” he said. “Today, these earnings are reduced to PKR5,000 to PKR10,000 [USD30 to USD62]. Sometimes, it is as low as PKR4,000 [USD25]. We are living from hand to mouth.”
The threat is not new. Fifteen years ago, an ActionAid report had said, “Pakistan’s fisherfolk go to bed hungry because of predatory trawlers moving in as a result of the country’s drive for more trade and exports.”
China’s interest in Pakistan’s fisheries
As regards China’s plans to invest in Pakistan’s fishing sector, experts are sceptical.
“What expansion are they talking about? We need to improve our fisheries,” said Moazzam Khan of WWF. “We can only invite others when we have done so.”
Even when the fisheries are replenished, Khan feels the fishing should not be done by the Chinese, but by locals to lift them out of poverty. “Other than squid, which Pakistan does not fish nor market, there is no capacity for these Chinese vessels to be fishing in our waters.”
Khan added that one Chinese vessel can catch 10 times more fish than a Pakistani one.
One Chinese vessel can catch 10 times more fish than a Pakistani one.Moazzam Khan, WWF-Pakistan
When asked about Li Bijian’s mention of sustainable fishing, training of fishers and processing plants, Khan said: “This looks like lip service. Do you think these fishermen need training? How will processing plants run without raw material? These offers are just an excuse to get permission for their deep sea vessels.”
According to the IUCN, Pakistan’s fisheries would benefit from addressing some key issues: harvesting beyond sustainable limits, use of destructive nets, over population of boats and trawlers, degradation of mangroves and pollution of coastal fishing grounds.
No consultation with locals
Haji Wajo said his community is left out of the conversation on development entirely. “Despite being the oldest dwellers in Gwadar, we have no say in the process.” Due to their protests, he said they received assistance from China, which includes 15 boat engines and solar panels. But to him it is “a drop in the ocean. We should be trained, educated and equipped with modern fishing tools. My community is uneducated, but it does not mean we cannot make decisions about our future.”