Making a sustainable living from fishing in the Indus Delta



Posted on 19 March 2013  | 
repairing fishing nets - Indus Delta
© WWF Pakistan Umair ShahidEnlarge
The Indus Delta, where the Indus River flows into the Arabian Sea, is a 600,000 ha large area with 17 creeks, swamps and extensive mudflats. It is part of a complex creek system inhabited by small, local fishing communities. Historically, agriculture made the delta flourish until large-scale irrigation works caused serious intrusion and erosion of the soil. Many farmers changed their spades for fishing nets and migrated to the small, remote coastal town Keti Bunder. Today 90% of the village depends on fisheries as a source of income. But income varies a lot depending on the season, and is heavily reliant on unsustainable techniques such as illegal drift gillnets that catch non-target fish of poor quality. Working as a fisheries officer at WWF Pakistan, I embarked in a trade-off initiative between 2009 and 2012 to help fishermen turn away from these unsustainable practices. Almost a year later, I returned to the village …

As I arrived at Keti Bunder, a cold breeze was blowing; it was a nice Sunday afternoon. A few fishermen just came back from their trip and were unloading the catch of the day. I boarded the boat as it started to take off slowly, heading towards Bhoori village, my final destination. The waves surged towards the edges of the creeks as it hit the dense mangrove patches and subsided. As we made our way along the channels, a small flock of painted storks flew past. I caught the sight of a brahminy kite feeding on a mullet in the salt shrubs. We crossed the channel, entered a sub-creek through a deeper water zone and, finally, reached Bhoori. I jumped off the boat and walked through the mud towards a group of fishermen who were waiting for me.

According to the village tradition, the fishermen offered me some water to clean my feet and we all set down in a small room, a thatch hut that was made of typha reeds. The seven fishermen whom I had worked with closely over the past years were wearing their traditional shalwar kameez, they looked at me curiously for I had returned after almost one year.

On my right sat Mohammed Amin Jatt, 65 years old, who daily earns 200 – 250 PKR (between 1,5 and 2 euros) and has to feed a family of 10 people.  "We used to cultivate red rice, we had enough water in the village from the Indus River flourishing our lands," he said. “Once freshwater supply started to get depleted, I had to adapt fast to be able to continue to support my family, so I turned to fishing."  Mohammed explained that the shift from agriculture to fishing was not abrupt. It had taken some time before he had completely abandoned farming.  “The first years were tough, combining fishing and farming to make a living. This continued until the mid 80’s when fish catches went down drastically. My kids used to go to bed on an empty stomach, because we didn´t have earnings from agriculture anymore and the fishing nets were not meant to use on a boat. So I took a loan, bought a boat and an estuarine set-bag net. I set up my nets in different creeks as there was plenty of fish. We could fish anywhere, the mole holder who helped me purchase the boat bought whatever we caught. However, this got me, my family and the other fishermen sitting in this room into big problems."  Mohammed Ismail Jatt, Ali Mohammed and Hamzo nodded their heads in unison. "We just followed the others, thinking it would bring great benefit. We used to hear stories from people living in other creeks that they were much happier, not realizing that this kind of fishing would completely eliminate our chances of survival." 

I was astonished to hear how desperate they were to find a way out of the predicament. "We were caught in the loan cycle trap and it seemed impossible for us to get out, we continued to take credits from the mole holder because we did not have earnings or savings to maintain our household. We were desperate because the interest rate was fixed at an exorbitant rate," told Hamzo, aged 42. "When WWF told us they would help us, we thought it was just another formality, that nothing would change. But then we started to have discussions in the village", Ali Mohammed stated. "And when you came back with a set of options, we were pleased to hear from you. It seemed a logical way to get out of the loan, even though we realized that it would be difficult to put into practice. We exchanged our five estuarine set-bag nets for the five nets you offered, your ideas were fully reasonable as you described five individual plans." 

"The plan was straightforward, developed to tackle your different problems," I replied. "Amin’s loan had to be waved off, along with the provision of insulated plastic containers, new engine and boat repair, whereas Hamzo and Ismail got new boats and new engines along with larger mesh sized nets. But we didn´t just want to give you an incentive, we wanted to provide you with a concrete, sustainable long-term alternative". Amin interrupted me excitedly: "it was an excellent, innovative idea when WWF asked us to make ponds to store crabs, we consider them as our bank, we can obtain cash at anytime. When we have a bad fishing day, we can sell 10 to 12 crabs, earning around 300PKR (about 2,5 euros) per crab, which is great." 

After some silence, he concluded: “previously we used to cast nets everywhere and the fish depleted rapidly. Now we fish in a targeted way, our fishing practices have improved. The next challenge is to create a better market for selling our fish. We hope that with the support of WWF, this will soon become another reality."  

By Umair Shahid, Fisheries Officer, WWF Pakistan
repairing fishing nets - Indus Delta
© WWF Pakistan Umair Shahid Enlarge

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