On November 29, 2021, I had just returned to my hometown of Gwadar after completing my master’s degree at Sussex. A lot has changed in just 14 months.
When I entered the city, I noticed that the first thing I noticed were several new roads and a lot of new construction work in progress. But the next, and most bizarre, scene is a rally of women on Marine Drive, a four-lane road in western Gwadar. Hundreds of women of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds, but mostly from local fishing communities, dominated this rally, which took place on the same day I arrived.
I’ve lived in Gwadar almost all my life here, but I’ve never seen anything like this before. To find out exactly what’s going on, I had to put on my journalist’s hat as soon as I got home.
It turns out that the local political activist Maulana Hedayat RahmanAnd the He was leading a protest movement on the list of issues Gwadar is still dealing with, despite decades of “development” work in the town.
Today, Gwadar, and in particular its port, is known as the gateway to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and thus is an important city for both China and Pakistan.
This new interest from Beijing and Islamabad changed what had been a little-known fishing village in Balochistan into a budding coastal city. While a lot has changed for the better for the residents of Gwadar, many basic issues remain unaddressed, such as water supply, energy, proper healthcare etc.
One of the biggest issues, not only in Gwadar but in the rest of the coastal belt of Balochistan, is illegal fishing. For decades, illegal fishing has made life difficult for those who depend on the fisheries economy and the oceans as their main source of food. This includes almost all residents of coastal areas.
To better navigate this situation, it is important to understand exactly what poaching is. According to the World Ocean Review, it is a violation of a country’s fisheries laws and regulations, whereby foreign vessels enter a particular jurisdiction without legal permission and target highly valuable species that are illegal to fish. These boats often post forbidden wire nets behind their ships, pulling nets along the sea floor to haul whatever comes in their way. Thus they end up with huge amounts of by-catch, which are usually dumped back into the sea (or sold to local factories at very low prices). Then they misreport the type and quantity of the species – if they report their catch at all (many don’t).
While this is highly profitable for illegal fishermen and others involved, this method significantly reduces fish stocks by overfishing and destroying marine habitats, coral reefs, seagrass and seagrass, affecting the entire marine environment.
Looking for data on annual catches for regional fisheries in Balochistan, I found that 2014 was the last time any such data was made public. The latest update, which included data from 2013-2014, showed a 7 percent drop.
To address the problem, several countries, including Pakistan, have enacted laws and signed international treaties, but poaching is the fourth illegal activity in the world after drug smuggling, counterfeiting and human trafficking, according to Interpol.
“They left nothing for us in the ocean. However, we see them every night. A local fisherman from Bishukan, a fishing village in western Gwadar, told me that they did not sail in the day after Maulana’s protests, but that they have complete power over the ocean at night.
“Sometimes these big boats are so deliberately so close to our small fishing boats that we are afraid they will hurt us.”
Almost all the fishermen I spoke to while covering this story in Gwadar and the nearby fishing villages – Bishukan, Giwani, Pasni, Ormara, and in the La Spilla district – had a similar story.
“Illegal fishing has a long history in this coastal belt, and over the years the issue has become more sensitive. A Jiwani fisherman explained: “We are not sure who owns the fishing vessels that come from Sindh and sometimes internationally, but there is one thing we do know is that they are a very powerful mafia with full political backing.”
Uncertainty and fear of strong supporters may be one of the reasons why most of the fishermen, activists and officers in the Balochistan Fisheries Department I spoke with requested anonymity for their own safety.
For the fishing community and those indirectly related to the fisheries economy, illegal fishing is part of their daily experience. But everyone who has lived here knows about it. Growing up, the first time I heard the word “trawling” was in 2003, through a short film shot locally. Although the story revolves around a domestic problem between a married couple, the socioeconomic background in the film was primarily rooted in the hunting community. This indicates the age of the problem.
But after researching more, I found out that the problem dates back to the 60’s or even earlier. It was first alerted in the 1970s by the 1971 Balochistan Fisheries Act, which was then amended several times in subsequent decades. This law declares that fishing by large vessels or wire-net trawlers is illegal, especially in the area of 12 nautical miles or less from shore.
Pakistan divides its sea into three zones, with the federal government controlling Zone 3 (from 20 to 200 nautical miles, which defines the extent of the country’s exclusive economic zone defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea). The area up to 12 nautical miles offshore (Zone 1) is the range of the Sindh and Baluchistan regions, and between 12 to 20 nautical miles is declared a buffer zone.
“Fishing ship mafias don’t care about any nautical miles. They fish wherever and whenever they want. They carry weapons. A fisherman from Gwadar explained, ‘If we shout after seeing them in protest of their activity, and if our boats get close, they start shooting openly.'”
“After I saw this and heard [similar stories] Of the hunters, for our own safety, we remain silent now even if we see them far or near. They take our fishing nets worth thousands of rupees, along with their huge wire nets that drag everything along the sea floor.
“They own the ocean. We are helpless, and so are the fisheries administration and the government who have let us down.”
Like many international treaties and regional laws, the Fisheries Act has not been fully enforced, and over the years this has encouraged those involved in illegal fishing.
From time to time, the problem provokes discussions among local residents, culminating in protests. As a result, government authorities banned fishing vessels for some time – but eventually the status quo returned and the routine continued.
For example, in June 2021, government authorities detained several Chinese fishing vessels laden with fish in Gwadar after local fishermen, activists and political workers protested against the federal government for granting Chinese fishing vessels the right to fish in Gwadar by issuing licenses to them.
But Chinese fishing vessels are not the only ones claiming a fair share of this coastal belt. Illegal fishing vessels from Sindh pose another problem as they infringe on territorial jurisdiction every day,” complains a fisherman activist from La Spella district.
Recently, Maulana Hedayat Rahman”right du moveor the ‘rights movement’, which included a month-long sit-in near the port of Gwadar and a series of protests – including those I saw on November 29 by women demonstrating – created pressures that forced the government to take some action. The rights movement talks about many other issues, but illegal fishing is one of its main concerns. As a result, the government authorities called for the ban of Chinese fishing vessels and those coming from the neighboring province of Sindh. In February of this year, a number of fishing vessels were arrested from the bond.
But in response, fishermen using fishing vessels in Sindh blocked the main channel at Bin Qassim Port in Karachi for 34 hours, halting all traffic in and out of Pakistan’s busiest seaport. This forced the government to agree to their demands and this illegal practice began again.
“Even when the government apparently took some measures against them after the movement and protests, nothing has changed,” said Nahda Ghulam Nabi, a veteran fisherman and local fishing boat owner from Jiwani. “Although we don’t see them often in Gwadar anymore, because the protests usually get stronger from here, but all along the coast, from Words to Paddock to Haft Talar to Geweni, you will see them everywhere at night 12 nautical miles away. The sun rises, they sail forward out of this region.
“They didn’t stop hunting here.”
There are several authorities – Balochistan Fisheries Department, Coast Guard, Navy and many others – tasked with guarding the ocean, reporting and combating any illegal activity at sea.
“Legally, we at the Fisheries Department have the authority to report any illegal activity in our jurisdiction and even take action through our patrol forces. The law authorizes us to [to do so]An official from the Balochistan Fisheries Department said.
We are aware of the presence of poachers and their entry and exit times. But we can’t do anything about it. Many politicians and even leaders of local fishermen organizations are involved, because they all have special interests, which are often financial.”
She asked why the leaders of the Hunters’ organizations get involved when they stand with the Hunters during the demonstrations. The officer explained, “They own fish factories in Gwadar and other places. Usually, the fishing vessel mafia dumps huge amounts of by-catch into the sea, but whenever they profit, they sell it to the owners of local fish factories at very low prices.”
“So, factory owners who happen to be leaders in the field of fishermen’s rights make money from this mafia, but the poor fishermen consider them their defenders. When their leaders and local politicians don’t want this to end honestly, it never will.”
In a way, the rights movement has shed light on the issue, but speaking to Pasni fishermen and journalists, I found that there was a split among the local fishermen. One group supports Maulana Hedayat Rahman and the other does not.
Sajid Noor, a journalist from Pasni, explained, “The movement negatively affected the Pasni fishermen community. There are many fishermen who happen to be associated with Haq Do Tariq with Mawlana. They have created an alliance and prevent other Pasni hunters from hunting at night. This encourages the trawler mafia to plunder the ocean even more.
Nour added, “We still do not know why Maulana’s party does not allow fishermen to hunt at night while there is no law preventing them.” “With this, most of the Hunters here are going through an unprecedented economic crisis, 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 in Gwadar has highlighted many issues, including illegal fishing, some of its policies and steps have become controversial recently, especially in Pasni.
But activists are not the only ones being questioned. Regional and federal government have the legal authority to choose to enforce coastal laws, save the ocean, and pull people out of an economic crisis — or leave the coast plagued by an outbreak of illegal fishing.