Modified Fishing Gear Usage Nearly Eliminates Bycatch Fishing Techniques

WWF-Pakistan data shows that 12 boats using new equipment and practices caught only six turtles in 2018-22, and released them safely by trained fishers.

Modified Fishing Gear Usage Nearly Eliminates Bycatch Fishing Techniques

The use of modified fishing gear and increased awareness have led to fewer deaths of turtles, sharks, dolphins, and whales in Pakistani waters, while fishers’ incomes have increased and nearly all bycatch fishing techniques have been abandoned.

Shakil lives in the coastal village of Ibrahim Hyderi, in Pakistan’s biggest city Karachi, and is one of 700 people who have received training from WWF-Pakistan under its Sustainable Fisheries Entrepreneurship Project.

Shakil remembers saving a threatened green turtle in early January 2023. He and other fishermen had set up a fishing net and were eagerly awaiting the catch when they felt something moving. They carefully removed the net and witnessed the turtle flipping back into the water.

Shakil attended a workshop in 2018 that changed his mindset and gained knowledge of the ecological functions of turtles, sharks, and whales, as well as the dwindling numbers of these animals. They were also taught techniques how to safely release animals that get caught accidentally in their nets while they are fishing – often referred to as bycatch.

The project aims to reduce bycatch fishing techniques and create additional livelihood opportunities to make fishing on Pakistan’s coast more sustainable. Before 2012, 28,000 turtles and 12,000 dolphins were caught every year in fishing gear in Pakistan’s waters, and nearly all entangled dolphins would die due to suffocation, says Muhammad Moazzam Khan, WWF-Pakistan’s technical adviser for marine fisheries.

The Third Pole quotes Khan as saying that 21,000 fishing boats, 13,000 in Sindh and 8,000 in Balochistan, are employed along Pakistan’s coastline. The majority employ gillnets, seine nets, and trawling— fishing techniques that capture marine animals without regard for their species and result in significant bycatch.

“To encourage fishermen to use sustainable fishing methods, we are collaborating closely with government agencies. Changing the gear or altering current practises also requires some funding, so we have enlisted the help of business to fund these conservation initiatives,” Khan added.

Particularly detrimental to Pakistan’s marine ecosystems are gillnets. They cover large areas of the ocean with impenetrable walls of fine-meshed netting, which frequently entangle the targeted fish species as well as large marine animals and young fish.

UN regulations and agreements under the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission stipulate that drift gillnets should not be more than 2.5 kilometres long, but Pakistani fishers use nets that are 15 to 20 kilometres long, leading to a 40–70% decline in fish populations. A study found that bycatch in the country’s gillnet fisheries between 2012 and 2015 was 40–70%.

WWF-Pakistan started a “crew-based observer program” in 2012 to educate skippers on the safe release of endangered marine species. In the past 11 years, 113 whale sharks, 42 sunfish, seven dolphins, five whales, seven sharks, 96 mobulids (manta and devil rays), 34 sea snakes, 21 giant squid, and thousands of marine turtles have been released from nets in Pakistan’s waters.

We later realised that a rescue and safe release programme was insufficient, as Khan claims. As a result, WWF-Pakistan began working on altering the fishing equipment. “In 2015, we experimented with sub-surface gillnets [where nets are set more than two metres below the surface], integrating local knowledge and using scientific data. This was very successful because it reduced the bycatch of cetaceans—whales, dolphins, and porpoises—by 98%.”

All 700 tuna-fishing boats in Pakistan switched to using these sub-surface gillnets between 2016 and 2019. Khan continues, “Some fishers in Iran, Oman, and India also use this method.”

Then, according to Nadeem Shaikh, senior officer for community development at WWF-Pakistan, modified longline gear was introduced in 2018. This technique uses a single fishing line with up to 4,000 baited hooks strung along it, rather than a large net.

Traditional longline fishing, which was used before the adoption of gillnets, had high rates of bycatch. Turtles were particularly prone to encountering the lines, and the WWF project provides fishers with “circle” hooks to use alongside J-shaped hooks.

It also urges fishers to use bait that is less likely to attract non-target species, and trains them to set the lines deeper, at over 70 metres, in fishing grounds where turtles and sharks are less likely to encounter them.

WWF-Pakistan data shows that 12 boats using new equipment and practices caught only six turtles in 2018-22, and released them safely by trained fishers. No incidents involving whales, whale sharks, or dolphins were reported.

Kiani, a University of Karachi professor, describes longline fishing and sub-surface gillnets as “suitable fishing practices”. He believes that entanglement of threatened and endangered species has been reduced where the WWF-Pakistan measures have been adopted, but there is still a need to raise awareness and regulate fishing practices. These methods provide jobs for up to 1.8 million people.

Shaikh from WWF-Pakistan claims that poverty and trouble accessing basic necessities are still widespread in the fishing community where he was raised. According to him, longline fishing is a crucial strategy for increasing fishers’ incomes.

Muhammad Ali is one of three fishermen from Ibrahim Hyderi who had longline fishing installed on their boats in 2018 through WWF-Pakistan’s Sustainable Fisheries Entrepreneurship Project. This has changed his life, with his income more than trebling. Longline fishing in deep waters has allowed him to catch larger fish in greater quantities, which he can sell at a good rate.

It costs around PKR 900,000 (USD 3,400) to install longline equipment on a boat, with WWF-Pakistan contributing half of the cost. In the past two years, 15 boats have been fitted with longline gear, and 65 boats in Ibrahim Hyderi and Rehri Goth in Karachi now use longlines, changing the lives of around 980 fishers.

Shaikh’s calculations show that 980 fishers earn almost three times more than their counterparts still using gillnets. However, only 4% of Pakistan’s fishing fleet has moved to one of the more sustainable methods.

To shift all fishing vessels to longlines and sub-surface gillnets, it may not be possible, but government departments and the corporate sector are working to sensitize fishers to adopt sustainable fishing practices. A change in gear or modifications to existing practices also requires funding.

With the provision of appropriate fishing gear, education, and capacity-building programmes for fishers, marine scientist Kiani is optimistic that “we can help revive the dwindling populations of marine species, of which some are on the verge of extinction.”