Change on the water - a fisherman´s story from Pakistan
Marine conservation in Pakistan is an overlooked subject and any progress in this regard is hardly noticeable. With more than a billion people, Pakistan ranks 6 in the list of countries by population. While the population is locked in a fight against political dilemma’s, there are few among many who still believe in encompassing change. These are fishers who have been made aware about the importance of keeping vulnerable marine species alive, through a training programme initiated by WWF-Pakistan. They release sharks, turtles or any other species caught accidentally safely back to sea in an effort to protect the marine species along the Pakistan coast.
Killing them softly
Gillnets, a gear commonly used to catch tuna, stretches across the ocean like a placid sheet, slowly and gradually wrapping death around the iconic species of the marine kingdom. While regional scientific bodies and fisheries management organisations believe that gillnets are harmful, there is a lot of speculation from countries about the lack of scientific evidence to prove its harm, thus delimiting or transforming gear would be a change yet to happen. On the other side, fishers argue for dwindling catches and want to catch more fish.
Shah Zamin stresses: "we could find fish in abundance, and catch bigger fish 20 years ago, but now, we don´t even fish 25% of the total catch we used to catch". He wonders where all the fish have gone and who is to be blamed?
It is difficult to change human perspective and practice, especially when practice leads to economic benefits.
Fishers engaged during the WWF project period felt that delimiting the nets would decrease their catches further, so it was important to understand the use of gillnet fisheries, and more importantly, to find whether these practices are really so harmful. Four fisherman observers were trained on a voluntary basis to collect data from gillnet fleets. "It was a tense situation, as we were uncertain on what sort of data we would receive", says Umair Shahid from WWF´s Smart Fishing Initiative in Pakistan, leading the training programme. The fishers were happy to share the data with us, and exclaimed their excitement when they showcased their high bycatch and how they had managed to document it. The WWF team was shocked to see large number of sea turtles, sharks and marine mammals being caught. Once the fishers realized what had been upsetting us, they felt embarrassed, and apologized. Shah Zamin utters: "It was difficult to just sit and see your expressions, we thought you were interested in animals, but little did we know or realise the joy of keeping animals alive”.
Sustain future generations
Through WWF´s Smart Fishing Initiative training programme, fishermen have come to realize how important these animals are. Saeed Zaman, one of the fisher on the programme notes that he wants his children to see the beauty of mother nature, the animals that live freely in the sea. He wants his fishing practices to sustain future generations and that is why he was very eager to join the WWF-Pakistan team.
Muhammad Moazzam Khan, an expert with over 40 years’ experience in marine conservation and ex-Director General of the Marine Fisheries Department from the Pakistan government, provided technical knowledge during the training. "I understand, you cannot save everything,” he said, “even I cannot do that, but you will need to consider doing what is within your reach. For instance if you find a sea turtle entangled in your net, try to save some time to put it back in the sea. God has said in so many occasions, if you save one life, you save the whole humanity so how can life of any animal be any different from a man?’
It took several training and awareness sessions with the observers, as well as with other fishers working on similar gillnet fleets. It does not take much time to untangle the sea turtles and release them safely, however it does take a long time to untangle a whale shark for instance, and takes a lot of effort. The fishers have also safely released whales and dolphins and sea birds, although their efforts to conserve nature comes at a price, for instance the whale shark’s can be sold in the local market for its liver and oil and fetch a considerable amount, these fishers are happy to save a life.
I have a strong feeling that we are on our way to encompassing huge change in the way fishers see the animals. Recently, four more skippers have been trained by WWF to help collect data in the light of a new WWF Smart Fishing project called “Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction” in collaboration with the UN Global Environment Fund (GEF) and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). They have also been trained on how to safely release species entangled in nets, and provide information on tuna fisheries and bycatch. They safely released a cuvier’s longbeaked whale, earlier this year. “WOW! “ exclaimed, Umair Shahid, “this has been the first ever release of a whale in the Arabian sea”.