‘They Own the Ocean’: Gwadar’s Struggle With Illegal Fishing

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‘They Own the Ocean’: Gwadar’s Struggle With Illegal Fishing

Illegal fishing off Balochistan’s coast continues despite years of legislation, public protests, and government promises, showing how difficult it can be to combat the “trawler mafia.”

‘They Own the Ocean’: Gwadar’s Struggle With Illegal Fishing
Credit: Depositphotos

On November 29, 2021, I had just returned to my hometown of Gwadar after completing my master’s degree in Sussex. A lot had changed in just 14 months.

As I entered the town, the first things I noticed were several new roads and a lot of new construction in progress. But the next and most unusual sight was of a huge rally of women on Marine Drive, a seafront, four-lane road in the west of Gwadar. Hundreds of women of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds, but largely from the local fishing communities, dominated this rally, which convened the same day I arrived.

I have lived in Gwadar almost my entire life here, but had never seen something like this before. To find out what exactly was going on I had to put on my journalist hat as soon as I reached home.

It turned out that a local political activist, Maulana Hidayat-ur-Rehman, was leading a movement to protest a list of issues Gwadar is still dealing with, despite decades of “development” work in the town.

Today, Gwadar, and particularly its port, is known as the gateway to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and is therefore an important city for both China and Pakistan.

This new interest from Beijing and Islamabad changed what was a little-known fishing village in Balochistan to an emerging port city. While a lot has changed for the better for Gwadar’s residents, many basic issues still remain unaddressed, like water and power supply, proper healthcare, and so on.

One of the biggest issues of all, not just in Gwadar but in the rest of the coastal belt of Balochistan, is illegal fishing. For decades illegal fishing has made life hard for those relying on the fisheries economy and ocean as the main source of food. This includes almost the entire coastal population.

To navigate this situation better, it is important to understand what illegal fishing exactly is. As per the World Ocean Review, it is a violation of fisheries laws and regulations of a state, where foreign vessels enter a certain jurisdiction without legal permission and target high-value species that are illegal to fish. Often these boats deploy outlawed wire nets behind their vessels, dragging the nets along the seafloor to pull up everything that comes their way. They thus end up with huge quantities of bycatch, which they usually dump back into the sea (or sell to local factories in extremely low prices). They then misreport the kind of species and quantities of their haul – if they ever report their catches at all (many don’t).

While this is extremely profitable for illegal fishers and others involved, this method reduces fish stocks dramatically by overfishing and destroying marine habitats, corals, seagrass, and seaweeds, thus affecting the entire marine ecology.

Upon searching for data on annual provincial fishery catches in Balochistan, I found that 2014 was the last time any such data was made public. That last update, which included data from 2013-14, showed a decline of 7 percent.

To address the problem, several countries, including Pakistan, have established laws and signed international treaties, yet illegal fishing is the world’s fourth-ranked illicit activity right behind drug trafficking, counterfeiting, and human trafficking, according to Interpol.

“They have left nothing in the ocean for us. And yet, we see them every other night. They don’t sail in the day anymore after Maulana’s protests but have complete authority over the ocean at nights,” a local fisherman from Pishukan, a fishing village in the west of Gwadar, told me.

“Sometimes these large vessels deliberately get so close to our small fishing boats that we fear they would harm us.”

Almost all the fishermen I talked to while reporting for this story in Gwadar and the fishing villages nearby – Pishukan, Jiwani, Pasni, Ormara, and in Lasbela district – have a similar story.

“Illegal fishing has a long history in this coastal belt and over the years the issue has become more and more sensitive. We are not sure who owns the trawlers that come from Sindh and sometimes internationally, but one thing we know is that they are a very powerful mafia with complete political support,” explained a fishermen’s activist from Jiwani.

The uncertainty and fear of powerful backers may be reasons why most of the fishermen, activists, and officers at the Balochistan fisheries department I talked to asked to remain anonymous for their own safety.

For the fishing community and those indirectly related to the fisheries economy, illegal fishing is part of their everyday experience. But anyone who has lived here is aware of the issue. Growing up, the first time I heard the word “trawlering” was in 2003, via a locally shot short film. Though the story revolved around a domestic problem between a couple, the socioeconomic background in the film was mainly rooted in the fishing community. This shows how old the issue is.

But, upon searching more, I found out that the issue dates back to the 1960s or even earlier. The first time it was taken notice of was in the 1970s through the Balochistan Fisheries Ordinance 1971, which was then amended several times in the later decades. This ordinance declares fishing by large vessels or trawlers with wire nets to be illegal, especially in the zone 12 nautical miles or less from the shore.

Pakistan divides its sea into three zones, where Zone 3 (from 20 to 200 nautical miles, which marks the extent of the country’s UNCLOS-defined Exclusive Economic Zone) is controlled by the federal government. The zone up to 12 nautical miles from the shore (Zone 1) is the domain of the provinces Sindh and Balochistan, and between 12 to 20 nautical miles is declared a buffer zone.

“The trawler mafias do not care about any nautical miles. They fish wherever and whenever they want. They carry weapons. If we, after seeing them, scream in protesting their activity and if our boats come closer, they start open firing,” explained a fisherman from Gwadar.

“Having seen this and heard [similar stories] from fellow fishermen, for our own safety, we now stay silent even if we see them afar or close. They take our fishing nets worth thousands of rupees, along with their huge wire nets that drag everything along the seafloor.

“They own the ocean. We are helpless, and so are the fisheries department and government who have failed us.”

Like many international treaties and regional laws, the fisheries ordinance has never been completely implemented, and this over the years has encouraged those involved in illegal fishing.

From time to time, the problem stirs discussions among the local population, culminating in protests. As a result, the government authorities ban the trawlers for some time – but eventually the status quo returns and the routine continues.

For example, in June 2021, government authorities detained several Chinese trawlers loaded with fish in Gwadar after local fishermen, activists, and political workers protested against the federal government for granting the Chinese trawlers the right to fish in Gwadar by issuing them licenses.

“But the Chinese trawlers are not the only ones claiming a fair share in this coastal belt. Illegal trawlers from Sindh are another problem as they violate the provincial jurisdiction every day,” complains a fishermen’s activist from Lasbela district.

Recently, Maulana Hidayat-ur-Rehman’s “Haq Do Tehreek” or “Rights Movement,” which involved a month-long sit-in near Gwadar Port and a series of protests – including the one I saw on November 29 by women protesters – created pressure that forced the government to take some action. Though the Rights Movement talks about several other issues, illegal fishing is one of its top concerns. As a result, government authorities called for the banning of Chinese fishing vessels and those from the neighboring province of Sindh. In February of this year, several trawlers from Sindh were detained.

But, in response, fishermen with trawlers in Sindh blocked the main channel at Bin Qasim Port, in Karachi, for 34 hours, halting all the traffic in and out of Pakistan’s busiest seaport. This forced the government to agree to their demands and once again the illegal practice began.

“Even when the government seemingly took some action against them after the movement and protests, nothing changed,” said Nahuda Ghulam Nabi, a veteran fisherman and local fishing boat owner from Jiwani. “Though we don’t see them as much in Gwadar anymore, as protests usually get momentum from here, but all through the coast, from Kalmat to Badok to Haft-Talar to Jiwini, you will see them everywhere at night within 12 nautical miles. As soon as sun rises, they sail forward out of this zone.

“They have never stopped fishing here.”

There are several authorities – the Balochistan Fisheries Department, the coast guard, naval forces and several others – tasked with guarding the ocean, reporting and combating any illegal activity at sea.

“Legally, we at the fisheries department have authority to report any illegal activity in our jurisdiction and even take action through our patrolling forces. The law authorizes us [to do so], but our government and higher officers do not,” an officer from the Balochistan Fisheries Department said.

“We are aware of the presence of the illegal fishers and the times they enter and leave. But, we can do nothing about it. Many politicians and even leaders of local fishermen’s organizations are all involved, since they all have vested interests, which are often financial.”

I asked why the leaders of fishermen’s organizations would be involved, when they stand with the fishermen during the protests. The officer explained, “They own fish factories in Gwadar and elsewhere. Usually, the trawler mafia dump huge quantities of bycatch into the sea, but whenever they can benefit, they sell them to the owners of the local fish factories at extremely low rates.

“So, the owners of factories who also happen to be fishermen’s rights leaders make money out of this mafia, but the poor fishermen regard them as their advocates. When their own leaders and local politicians do not sincerely want this to end, it never will.”

In a way, the Rights Movement has highlighted the issue, but talking to fishermen and journalists of Pasni, I found that there is a division between the local fishermen. One group supports Maulana Hidayat-ur-Rehman and one does not.

Sajid Noor, a journalist from Pasni explained, “The movement has adversely affected the fishing community of Pasni. There are several fishermen who happen to be linked with Haq Do Tehreeq of Maulana. They have created an alliance and are stopping other fishermen in Pasni from fishing at night. This is encouraging the trawler mafias to plunder the ocean more.

“We still do not know why Maulana’s party is not letting the fishermen go fishing at nights while there is no such law that stops them,” Noor added. “With this, most fishermen here are fighting an economic crisis like never before, but there is nothing they can do about it.”

As much as illegal fishing is an emergency environmental, economic, and food security concern, it has not been addressed with the kind of steps it should have been. Where the recent movement beginning in Gwadar highlighted several issues, including illegal fishing, some of its policies and steps have become controversial recently, especially in Pasni.

But the activists are not the only ones to be questioned. The provincial and federal government have the legal authority to choose enforcement of coastal laws, save the ocean, and extricate the people from an economic crisis – or let the coast suffer from rampant illegal fishing.