Though the spill has not affected the seafood exports it would nevertheless poses many challenges for the local exporters

Aug 25 - 31 , 2003 

The massive oil spill near the Karachi coast has started to take an indirect toll on the marine fisheries operations posing serious threat to the livelihood of tens of thousands of fishermen associated with the trade. Though landings at the Karachi Fish Harbour show no visible impact of the spill, the seafood prices at the auction halls of the harbour have taken a severe beating due primary to a sudden, and sharp, drop in local consumption on the one hand and the apprehensions about exports on the other.

Fishery plays an important role in the national economy. Though its share in the GDP and overall exports is small it nevertheless contributes substantially to the national income through export earnings. Most important of all, it provides livelihood to over 400,000 persons around 70 per cent of whom are employed in the marine sector near the coastal areas while the remaining are employed in the inland fisheries sector. Pakistan produces around 650 metric tons of seafood annually over 72 per cent of which comes from the sea and marine catch contributes heavily to the overall seafood exports from the country. Last year, Pakistan exported $ 135 million worth of seafood translating into rupee equivalent of over 7.8 billion.

Thus far the wind has blown, the oil constantly leaking from the Greece-registered Tasman Spirit to a 8 kilometre stretch along the Clifton Beach, far from the commercial fishing grounds. Thus far the wind has been merciful to contain the spill along the Clifton beach but much depends on the direction of the wind in the weeks to come. For the residents of the posh Defence area near the beach the spill has caused environmental catastrophe polluting the air with toxic fuels causing eye, skin and respiratory problems. The spill has forced the authorities to issue warnings to the residents to avoid contact with the sludge and wear masks and eye glasses. The city government has closed the beach for the people and initiated operations to clean the sludge. Sorties are carried out to spray the despersants over the spill. Operations to transfer the oil from Tasman Spirit were abandoned due to bad weather and the vessel is feared to spill its huge load of the crude to worsen an already bad situation.

Much has been written in the press about the long-term impact of the spill, the worst such incident here in Pakistan and a major such disaster anywhere. Concerns include the permanent damage that the spill would cause to the mangroves which act as the nursery for shrimps and other varieties of fish. Long-term hazards of the spill on the human health have also been discussed by the media on a daily basis.

The drastic fall in seafood prices has not affected the normal activities at the Karachi Fish Harbour. This, however, is not meant to lessen the genuine concerns about the perceived threat to the livelihood of tens of thousands of people particularly those associated with the trade at the bottom rung of the ladder.

Talking to PAGE a former director of Fisherman's Cooperative Society Haji Khan Mir Niazi said that the prices of the seafood has fallen to such uneconomic levels that going out to sea has become an unprofitable options for most of the trawler operators. Haji Khan who is also the president of Sindh Tawler Owners and Fisherman Association said that auction price of squid has fallen from Rs 115 per kilo to Rs 50 per kilo, grunter (Dhotar) fish from Rs 130 to Rs 30 per kg, mackerel (Surmai) from Rs 250 to Rs 45 per kg, snapper (Heera) from Rs 120 to Rs 66 per kg and pamphret from Rs 550 to Rs 230 per kg.

The normal activities at the fish harbour, thus, masks an unnatural calm because drastic reduction in auction prices has made expeditions an unprofitable option not only for the trawler owners but also for the hired hands.

Talking to PAGE, Muhammad Khan, the Manager Market of the Fisherman's Cooperative Society said that it costs between Rs 200,000 to Rs 250,000 for a fishing trawler to go out on a 2-3 weeks expedition, an expense which has become extremely uneconomical due to drastic reduction in auction prices of the seafood. The same has been the case with vessels equipped with the gill nets, the operating costs of which ranges between Rs 70,000-100,000. Unlike the trawlers, which net everything including fish, shrimp, prawns, lobsters, shell fish, etc., the vessels equipped with gill nets can net only fish.

Just how bad is the situation is evident from the fact that the revenue of the Fisherman's Cooperative Society, which collects 3 per cent commission on all auctions, has registered a decline of Rs 2.9 million due primary to falling prices during the first 14 days of this month. The uneconomic prices have also rendered many a workers indebted to trawler owners as operational costs exceeded the earnings from the catch in many cases, added Haji Khan.

According to statistics compiled by the Society on a daily basis the seafood landings at the fishing harbour this month show an increasing trend over the same period last year. During the 10 days between 12th and 21st of this month landings at the harbour totaled 4,407 metric tons 416 metric ton on the 12th; 456 on the 13th; 190 on the 14th, the Independence Day holiday; 72 on 15th, the weekly day of rest; 588 on the 16th; 533 on the 17th; 678 on the 18th; 485 on the 19th; 424 on the 20th and 565 on the 21st. Tariq Ikram, the former chairman of Pakistan Seafood Industries and a major seafood exporter, told PAGE separately over the phone that the quantity of landings this week were actually bigger than those during the corresponding days last year.

Muhammad Khan blamed the constant negative press about the spill as the major cause of the drastic reduction in auction prices for the extreme financial hardships of the fishermen. "The seafood landings arriving at the harbour are netted far away from the small stretch of the Clifton Beach affected by the spill and yet the negative press has made the people to top eating the seafood altogether. The spill has affected a small segment of the coastal area restricted to the Clifton Beach and impact within the 4 nautical miles. Fishing trawlers and vessels registered at the harbour fish in deep sea tens of miles away from the Karachi coast and most of them venture out as far away as Gwadar and Pasni in Baluchistan in the federal admisnitered water and Keti Bunder here in Sindh. The seafood landings at the Karachi Fish Harbour is absolutely safe to eat but the bad press has made the people avoid eating fish and shrimp, the ultimate cost of which is borne by those associated with the catch at all levels."

Syed Akhtar Ali, the office administrator at the Society, said that landings at the harbour comes from three primary areas the coastal waters of Sindh like Keti Bunder, Thatta, Badin, etc.; the federally administered coastal waters off the 15 mile provincial limit in Baluchistan and the Karachi coastal area. "The share of Karachi coastal area in the overall landings at the harbour is negligible and comprises a variety of shrimp whose share in the overall catch is negligible and low priced mori bangra, sardines, the entire quantity of which is netted in the Karachi coastal area. The production of mori bangra has declined by a 25 per cent since early this month (7,230 kilogram of it was landed at the harbour on the 19th) however, we are not certain whether it has anything to do with the spill or not because fishing boats are avoiding the waters near the coast, where this particular variety is found, due to the spill."

Muhammad Khan said that the public perceptions about the seafood is unfounded because the spill has had no impact on it because commercial fishing is conducted way beyond the 12 miles provincial coastal line limit deep into the federal waters safe distances away from the affected Clifton Beach.

PAGE was also informed that the Marine Fisheries Department is monitoring the situation and is constantly conducting tests to keep abreast of the situation It is routinely collecting samples of fish in and around the commercial fishing grounds and I also monitoring the landings at the harbour, conducting random testing. High placed sources in the department told PAGE that the oil spill has not affected the fishing grounds in the least as the wind has blown the spill towards the Clifton Beach. "The spill has not affected the fishing areas at least at the present but much depends on the direction of the wind in the weeks to come."

While the landings and the exports are continuing at a normal pace the spill has pushed the cost of shipment for the exporters. Tariq Ikram told PAGE that the spill has resulted in increasing the "rejection insurance" prices, which ensures full payment to the exporters in case a shipment is rejected by authorities in a foreign market. "The cost of 'rejection insurance', a mandatory pre-requisite for exporters shipping seafood in many developed markets has been doubled from 4 per cent of the landed cost to 8 per cent of the landed costs of the shipments which in turn would push the prices of seafood exports. As is, the international prices of the seafood are on a low side due to increased production globally and that too is the reason for the declining auction prices here."

He also said that though the spill has not affected the seafood exports it would nevertheless poses many challenges for the local exporters because it is certain that the Pakistan seafood exports would have been monitored closely by the authorities in the international markets, particularly those in the developed world. "If previously the Pakistani seafood was passed through the green channel it would now be passed through the red channel."

He said that while the seafood exports continue at a normal pace at present much still depends on a number of factors such as the direction of the wind dictating the movement of the slick. "The spill may not have a short-term impact but its long-term affect just cannot be ruled out. There is an acute absence of latest testing equipment to monitor the affect of the spill on the seafood beyond the routine electro photo meter to check the mercury contents and heavy metals. While it is too early to say anything whether or not the spill would have an impact on the commercial fishing grounds, it is imperative to take measures to effectively monitor and test the seafood to allay the concerns of the importers. Failure to contain the spill and any impact on the commercial fishing grounds would result in pushing the 'rejection insurance' costs thereby rendering Pakistani seafood incompetitive in the international markets to lose business to the competitors."

Much depends on the benevolence of the weather, particularly the direction and the speed of the wind, in the days to come. Much is also dependent on the measures taken by the authorities to lessen the impact of the spill from Tasan Spirit which was leaking the crude wildly at the time this article was written. The catsatrophe has already taken a heavy toll on the environment causing extensive water and air pollution putting the health and lives of the people at grave risks. The most pertinent question is: whether the commercial catastrophe causing in-repairable damage to the commercial fishing habitats would be avoided? Let's pray.