Every year, countless endangered species become entangled in the gillnets of Pakistan’s tuna fleet. Until recently, most of them ended up dead. But WWF-Pakistan has been spearheading a new approach by training captains to rescue them – captains like Shah Zamin.
It’s been 21 years since the day that changed his life, but Zamin’s eyes still fill with tears when he recalls the day he watched a whale die after becoming entangled in his boat’s gillnet.
Originally from a village in the Hindukash mountains, Zamin was just a teenager and he watched in horror as the large whale struggled to free itself from the net. Hours passed but the more it fought to escape, the more entangled it became. Eventually, the Nakhuda – or captain – ordered Zamin to jump into the water and cut off the gigantic animal’s tail.
Unable to bring himself to harm the whale, Zamin refused. But another fisherman swiftly took his place, diving into the sea and hacking its tail off with an axe.
Haunted by the whale’s death, Zamin quit his job as soon as they returned to port. Lacking formal education, he tried to find another way to earn a decent living but eventually he had to return to fishing. And many endangered species are alive today because he did.
Zamin is now a Nakhuda himself, captaining a large tuna gillnetter in the rough waters of the Arabian Sea. Along with checking that there are no large whales in the vicinity before unfurling his gillnet, he also knows how to rescue any endangered species that it might accidentally trap – thanks to a workshop given by WWF-Pakistan.
During the training, he learned how to disentangle turtles from gillnets, resuscitate them if necessary and release them safely back into the sea. He was also taught how to free dolphins, whale sharks and other species that often end up as bycatch, as well as how to record biological information, such as species, length and weight, so as to provide scientists with vital data, which is often hard to come by in this region.
And the results have been extraordinary. Zamin and his crew have successfully released 500 turtles, and provided their data to conservationists. They have also been able to save two dolphins and four whale sharks, even though cutting them loose means he loses a significant part of his expensive net. But for Zamin, releasing turtles and whale sharks is worth far more than the cost of a new net.
Acting as an ambassador for WWF, Zamin also spreads the word about the need to reduce bycatch and he is proud that so many other tuna fishermen are now trying to prevent endangered species from dying in their nets. Through these efforts, he feels he is helping to compensate for the whale that he allowed to be butchered two decades ago.
But Zamin has a bigger dream: finding a way to prevent endangered species from becoming entangled in his nets in the first place. He understands that the best solution is probably to swap his gillnets for less harmful long lines. But it’s a big step. However, he’s willing to take it if someone is ready to give him a hand!
Over a thousand dolphins are bycaught in Pakistan’s fisheries each year