Earlier this month, the world witnessed a historic moment when delegates at the United Nations headquarters in New York reached an agreement on protecting the high seas. “The ship has reached the shore,” Rene Lee, Singapore’s ambassador for Oceans and Law of the Sea said, announcing that negotiations had successfully culminated in an agreement. The high seas are the part of the world’s oceans that lie outside national boundaries and have thus far been without any protective laws.
Meanwhile, thousands of miles away from New York, thousands of women had gathered at the Fish Harbor Road in Pakistan’s southwestern port city of Gwadar, which is the heart of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The women at the rally were chanting slogans against illegal fishing, inequalities, and the lack of implementation of existing international, federal, and provincial marine laws in waters that are within Pakistan’s national jurisdiction.
Pakistan divides its seas into three zones: Zone 3, which extends from 20 to 200 nautical miles (the limit of the Exclusive Economic Zone), is controlled by the federal government; Zone 1, which extends from the shore to 12 nautical miles (the limit of the territorial sea), is the domain of the provinces; and Zone 2, which lies between 12 to 20 nautical miles, is a buffer zone. Each coastal province, Sindh and Balochistan, then has its own laws to protect its fisheries economy, fisherfolk, and marine ecology within its boundary.
Of Pakistan’s two coastal provinces, Balochistan has the longest coastline. The Balochistan Fisheries Ordinance of 1971, which is a provincial law, outlaws illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. This law has been amended several times over the years to outlaw large vessels or trawlers from using wire nets that drag along the seafloor, pulling up everything that comes their way.
But the law has been hardly implemented.
Unchecked fishing by foreign and Pakistani-owned trawlers has led to destruction of Pakistan’s marine environment and depleted fish catch in these waters. As a result, those living in coastal areas, who depend on the seas and its resources for their livelihood, have been hit hard.
Local communities have been campaigning for the implementation of the marine laws, though so far they have not received much media coverage. The issue gets raised by politicians during election time, only to fall off the grid subsequently.
The ongoing protests in Gwadar began in November 2021, as part of the larger Haq Do Tehreek, a mass movement demanding rights for the people of Gwadar. For several weeks, the people of Gwadar have been sitting in protest at the entrance of the port, demanding government action against illegal fishing and for inclusive development where rights of the local people are prioritized.
“People live in two different worlds in Gwadar,” Asia Baloch, a participant in the protests, told The Diplomat. One world “is developing rapidly and connecting with the world through a deep-sea port and CPEC,” she said, while the “other is yet to have its basic needs like water and a proper sewerage system met.”
The latter are “fighting to make ends meet.” The main demand is for the implementation of “the rule of law and an end to illegal trawlers,” she said.
In January 2023, the leader of the Haq Do Tehreek, Maulana Hidayat-ur-Rehman, was arrested. He stood “firm against the sea mafias [illegal trawlers] and for our brothers to earn a living,” Asia said.
Consequently, people are demanding his release.
Apparently, the Maulana had warned Chinese citizens working at the port to leave. This demand seems to have got him into trouble. Over a hundred people were arrested. Although Rehman fled the scene, he was arrested a week later. The government used force to disperse the protesters and even enforced a month-long curfew prohibiting public gatherings under Section 144 of the Pakistan Penal Code. Although most of the people were later released, Rehman still remains behind bars.
Concern over security too is driving the protest. A local fishermen’s activist from Jiwani in Balochistan, who spoke to The Diplomat on condition of anonymity, said that the protests are not just about making a living. The “trawler mafia,” as the local fishermen refer to the men on board the trawlers, “carry weapons and often take away the fishing nets already placed by the local fishermen,” he said.
“The trawlers come from the neighboring province of Sindh and sometimes abroad and seem to be backed by political powers, as they do not seem to care about or fear any laws. The law enforcement groups are well aware of the situation but they have so far failed to stop the trawlers from plundering our marine reserves,” he said.
Local fishermen have protested illegal fishing on and off for over two decades.
However, the recent protests against illegal fishing are showing signs of change. Women from the fishing communities are participating in large numbers. It must be noted that the fishing communities in Gwadar are one of the poorest and most marginalized groups in what is a conservative part of Pakistan.
As in other parts of the world, in Pakistan too it is not often that one sees women leading or dominating rights movements in cities, let alone in an emerging coastal port town in one of Pakistan’s most impoverished provinces. Fishing is a predominantly male domain, and protests for fishing rights are usually dominated by fishermen.
Anila Yousaf, an activist and principal of a public school in Pishukan, a fishing village in Gwadar, told The Diplomat that the protesting women “belong to some of the poorest communities of Gwadar and are only out on the streets because they are seeing the once-thriving fisheries economy shrinking. They are seeing the male members of their families being detained for protesting illegal fishing and are therefore out on the streets.”
Women assumed that the security forces “will not hurt them, keeping in mind the traditional concept of ‘respecting women no matter what,’” Yousaf said. But in the protests in January, “even women were not spared by the forces.”
Women in Gwadar might not be in charge of the movement or making key decisions. But their participation in the protests in thousands shows that they are in solidarity with the collective demand for action against illegal fishing, which is the main cause of the depleting marine biodiversity and the lagging fisheries economy in the region.
For the women in Gwadar, there is still a long to go before they succeed in negotiating protective measures for the seas in the provincial and national jurisdictions, and an even a longer way before they can celebrate by saying, “the ship has reached the shore.’’