Pakistan is missing the boat on seafood exports6 min read

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(This news/article originally appeared in DAWN on September 17th, 2018) Pakistan’s fish and seafood exports can easily fetch a billion dollars a year. Our fisheries sector can contribute more to agricultural GDP if authorities come up with a result-oriented revival plan.

Currently, seafood exports remain less than half a billion dollars and the share of fisheries in agricultural GDP is 1.8 per cent.

It’s not that the previous governments have altogether neglected this sector. The problem is their efforts were at times fragmented, not backed up by what was required simultaneously. They made no serious efforts to evaluate the results.

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Back in 2006-07, Pakistan formulated a national policy and strategy for fisheries and aquaculture development. Inland fishing saw some improvement in the next couple years. But after the devolution of agriculture as a fully provincial subject from 2010-11, work on that policy almost stopped. The provinces started focusing on fisheries on their own with nominal coordination with federal agencies. Had their independent handling of fisheries been sincere and efficient, our gains in this sector would have been exemplary.

Sindh and Balochistan governments kept allocating huge funds for fisheries, but failed to address perennial issues. Punjab somewhat succeeded in promoting inland fishing, exporters say

Now we have a sea boundary of 350 nautical miles instead of 200 miles. But the authorities concerned have done little to exploit this situation for the benefit of deep-sea fishing

In the case of Balochistan, lack of uninterrupted supplies of fish hauls from the coastline of that province to Karachi also discouraged private-sector initiatives in fisheries there. Karachi Fisheries, on the other hand, remained in the vortex of corruption and nepotism. Naturally, private-sector investment in inland fish farming that had risen between 2006-07 and 2010-11 started dwindling.

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The Sindh Board of Investment had made some efforts to attract investment in fish farming in coastal areas of Thatta and Badin and had initially got encouraging response from the private sector. But after that, no more plans were made and even Thatta-Badin fish farms are now operating below their potential, some owners of those farms lament.

Private-sector investors did not take much interest in the idea of shrimp farming at specially built water ponds.

Sindh and Balochistan are the main fish-producing provinces. The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), the party in power at the centre, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, has little influence in these two provinces. If Sindh and Balochistan governments are serious about improving their economies for future political gains, they should not ignore the issues facing our fisheries sector.

The PTI’s federal government should also flag fisheries for a quick turnaround in the same manner it has prioritised forestry. If it can aim to plant 10 billion trees in five years, why can’t it try to boost fish and seafood exports to a billion dollars also in five years?

Exports of fish and fish preparations fetched $451 million in the last fiscal year. The amount was 14.5pc higher than the preceding year’s exports of about $394m. But given vast fishing resources available in the country, current foreign earnings are not at all impressive. We can take fish and seafood exports to a billion dollars within three to five years provided fishing resources are exploited more systemically, some investment is made in processing, exporters are consulted in decision making at all levels and those running fishing affairs keep a constant check on the result.

Let’s start with the fishing resources.

Marine fishing, which is carried out in sea water, takes place within a small portion of the areas technically available for this purpose. The reason: we don’t have enough number of large, modern, tailor-made fishing vessels and boats. Mangroves growth has not been prioritised and shrimp production remains stagnant. Inland fishing also suffers from a lack of proper fishing boats and preservation systems, encroachments along the riverbeds and broken supply chain.

Production at fishing farms is not accelerating much in the absence of adequate investment and research on modern ways of big-scale fish breeding. Private-sector investment in fishing remains elusive and the bulk of the public-sector investment in the revamping of fisheries infrastructure goes into salaries and perks of the officials of the departments concerned. Stories about their financial corruption also keep coming up.

All this has to change if we want to explore the full potential of our fishing sector.

“We need an institutional framework to make long-term strategic investment in the fishing sector under public-private partnership. We need to bring all stakeholders on to a single platform,” suggests a Karachi-based seafood exporter.

“We need to envision, strategise and execute five-year plans for the development of fishing with very active participation from policymakers at different levels, businessmen and local and foreign experts.”

In the last fiscal year, export volumes of fish and fish preparations exceeded 198,000 tonnes, up 27pc from 155,000 tonnes a year ago. Exporters say the potential for exports is no less than 300,000 tonnes that can be increased to half a million tonnes in the next five years. One reason why our export volumes are below 200,000 tonnes is that our fish and seafood processing units lack the facilities required for producing export-grade products of acceptable standards in the global buyers’ market, exporters say.

Another reason is the production of high-end, value-added expensive products is limited. The fact that growth in export volumes in the last fiscal year was higher than export earnings’ growth shows that the average per-unit price of fish and seafood shipments did not improve.

Maintaining supplies in the local market of fish, shellfish, shrimp and crabs and creating an exportable surplus at the same time require out-of-the-box solutions for problems in fish hauling. Deep-sea fishing must be promoted. Fishing of those varieties whose population is in danger due to environmental issues, including growing sea pollution, must be checked, exporters say. Data collection for fish production from all sources will have to be made more reliable and future forecast more scientific.

Our total fish production continues to hover around 650,000 tonnes a year, with 400,000 tonnes coming from marine sources and 250,000 tonnes from inland fishing.

In March 2016, the United Nations Maritime Commission accepted Pakistan’s claim regarding its territorial waters. Now we have a sea boundary of 350 nautical miles instead of 200 miles. What have the authorities done so far to exploit this situation for the benefit of deep-sea fishing? People associated with the fishing business lament that they have so far not received even a proper briefing about it.

Ideally, fishermen should have received fresh guidelines on how deeper their vessels can now go into the expanded sea areas under the administration of Pakistan.

(This news/article originally appeared in DAWN on September 17th, 2018)

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