There is an old proverb, beloved of fisherfolk in Pakistan, that says when all else fails, the sea will provide. Now, after centuries of surviving on fish such as the tuna and shrimp that thrive in Pakistan’s coastal waters, many traditional fishing communities are facing ruin as the sea is stripped bare by foreign trawler fleets and industrial overfishing.
According to trade campaigners, it is a story that is being replicated in poor fishing communities in developing countries across the world. And as the current round of World Trade Organisation (WTO) negotiations splutter back to life, the demise of Pakistan’s fishing communities is being held up as a warning of the impact that the moves to further liberalise global fishing could have on some of the world's most deprived communities.
The Pakistani Maritime Security Agency (MSA), which polices fishing along Pakistan's coastline, says there are currently 23 mid-size trawling boats and 21 trans-national trawlers operating with licences in Pakistani waters.
Local fishermen in Ibrahim Hydri, a small fishing town in the sparse Sindh coastal province, unload their fishing boats just metres from half-a-dozen trawlers with Chinese insignia in the town harbour. Many dispute the official figures, insisting that around 100 foreign ships have been spotted in local waters in the last 12 months.
“Since the government has let these foreign ships into our waters, our stocks have depleted and there is nothing left," says local fisherman Abbas Ali. "For hundreds of years, our forefathers have fished these waters, but our children are going to end up beggars."
He says the town's small wooden fishing boats are no match for the trawlers. "It's like trying to race a truck with a bicycle," he says. "In just a few years, these people have come here, destroyed the sea, and stolen our livelihoods from us."
In recent years, Pakistan has steadily been stepping up its efforts to exploit what it terms the "untapped potential" of its fish stock. In 1982, the government opened its waters to international fishing fleets, and in 2003-04 alone more than 90,255 tonnes of fish and fishery products were exported from Pakistan, to countries including the United Kingdom, Japan and Sri Lanka.
Pakistan's 2001 deep-sea policy set out a plan to further increase foreign-exchange earnings from the increased export of fisheries and fishing products. The same policy relaxed regulations that restricted trawler activity to a zone 35 to 200 kilometres from shore after pressure from "friendly" trading partners, such as China and Taiwan. Licensed medium-sized trawlers are now allowed to fish 20 kilometres from shore, an area previously reserved exclusively to protect the livelihood of local fisherfolk.
Men scrubbing down their boats at Ibrahim Hydri say the impact that trawling and overfishing has had on their livelihoods and on the marine environment has been devastating. They estimate that the daily catch has declined by 70% to 80% in the last decade. Five years ago, it took Ali 36 hours to catch 1,000 kilogrammes of fish that fed and supported his family. Now he and seven other men return after 15 days at sea with a catch that weighs in at just under 500 kilogrammes.
As he hauls his nets to shore, Ali reels off the names of more than a dozen fish species that are no longer found in the surrounding waters. Reports by the Pakistani Fisherfolk Forum (PFF), a environmental campaigning group set up to protect the rights of local fishing communities, say that more than 50% of local marine species have been almost wiped out by intensive fishing of Pakistan's sovereign waters.
According to its research, only 10% of the fish caught by the trawlers' nets can be sold on the international markets; this leads to the other 90% being pumped back into the sea and thereby increasing marine pollution in shallow waters.
"Tonnes of fish that could have been used to sustain the livelihoods of local fisherman have been needlessly destroyed through foreign trawling," says Mohammad Ali Shah, chairman of PFF. Foreign trawlers, he says, are the "last straw" for fishermen who have seen their livelihoods destroyed in the name of progress.
Pollution from the trawlers joins 1.14 billion litres (300 million gallons) of urban sewage and 270 tonnes of industrial waste that is pumped into the sea from multiple channels every day. Dams and barrages built with World Bank loans along the delta of the Indus, Pakistan's longest river, have starved marine channels of fresh water, resulting in many inland fishing communities migrating to the coastal waters in search of fish. Pollution and over-population have contributed to the demise of the mangroves that provided breeding grounds for shrimps that previously provided the backbone for much of the local economy.
There is repeated criticism from environmental campaigners that, despite pressure from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Pakistan has yet to undertake an up-to-date fish stock survey. This means that licences to foreign trawling fleets could be issued without the government having a clear idea of how many fish are left in Pakistan's waters.
In a new report entitled Taking the Fish, ActionAid — one of the international non-governmental organisations working with PFF — says the exploitation of Pakistan's marine environment is being done with no regard for the environmental or social impact on communities or resources. It is now calling on Pakistan's government to ban foreign trawlers and institutionalise in its fishing policy the FAO's code of conduct for responsible fisheries.
Moazzam Khan, deputy director of the Marine Fisheries Department (MFD) in Karachi, admits that Pakistan's fish stocks are fast depleting, but insists that the government has not issued licences to foreign trawlers since 2005, saying that the declining fish stock and rising fuel prices have made it uneconomical for foreign fleets to operate in Pakistan's waters. "We always heavily regulated the trawling activity," he says. "Although we are in talks about issuing further licences, we would not do so without assurances from the trawlers that they would fish in a sustainable manner."
Khan believes the real problem lies in the growing number of people entering the fishing industry, and says the government is planning to institute no-fishing zones in an attempt to help stocks recover.
But many fishermen dismiss the government's claims, saying they have never been visited by anyone from the MFD, and that they have seen no evidence of any moves to regulate fishing. "The government has no idea what is happening here," says Mohammad Ali, a fisherman living in a makeshift tarpaulin hut in the village of Dabla Mohalla Rarri, a fishing community 15 kilometres from Ibrahim Hydri. "There are many trawlers operating illegally in our waters. They stay away when the MSA comes, but when it leaves they come back. They come in so close they are nearly colliding with our fishing boats."
Trade campaigners argue that even though three-quarters of the world's fish stocks are deemed to be fully exploited, countries including those in the European Union, plus the United States and Japan, continue to subsidise their fishing industries by an estimated $6.3 billion (£3.2 billion) a year.
On top of this, the current round of WTO negotiations on subsidies and non-agricultural market access could lead to an elimination or significant reduction of all tariffs in the fish and fish products sector. Already five WTO members, including Brazil and India, have made offers to liberalise parts of their fishing services.
Alex Wijeratna, author of Taking the Fish, and trade policy campaigner at ActionAid UK, says that since Pakistan joined the WTO in 1995, it has independently pursued a significantly more liberalised fish-trade regime.
"If what is happening to poor fishing communities in Pakistan is already happening through bilateral trading agreements outside the WTO, we can only imagine the global impact it would have if liberalisation is locked in by the WTO," Wijeratna says. "It's nothing short of mad short-termism."
In Ibrahim Hydri, there is growing anger about the loss of its traditional livelihood. The community contends that it has been duped by false promises of financial assistance, and that no effort has been made to provide alternative livelihoods. "We are not against development,” says Shah, “but what is happening here is not development. We are going backwards.”