September Issue 2003

By | News & Politics | Published 16 years ago

Yar Mohammed is sitting idle on a wooden cot in his small house in Kaka village and has no idea what to do. Only a few weeks ago he had untangled his fishing nets, cleaned his small boats and was all set to go into the waters of the Arabian Sea to fish. But before he could set out on the journey, he found out that the seawaters had been polluted by crude oil and nobody was interested in buying fish. He has no idea of how the huge oil spill on the Karachi seashore could affect marine life. “What is crude oil by the way?” he asks, saying he has heard the term from his fellow fishermen.

Forty-three-year-old Yar Mohammed is also concerned about a host of stories pouring in. He has heard that not only are his countrymen scared to eat the fish from the sea after it has been declared polluted, but the international community may also slap a ban on the export of Pakistani fish. “I don’t know if the sea that has been both mother and father for us and has been fetching us bread and butter for many centuries is now fed up with feeding us,” he says. The majority of the fishermen living in the coastal communities don’t send their kids to school and the only thing that they teach their toddlers is the art of fishing. Yar Mohammed is worried as there will be nothing else for these people to do, if the man-made disaster has a prolonged effect. “I’m afraid many of these families will perish,” he says. All he can do now is to pray for God’s help.

For hundreds and thousands of fishermen whose livelihood depends solely on the daily catch from the Arabian Sea, economic problems started a couple of months ago with the breeding season, when their access to the catch was limited. The colossal oil spillage from the marooned Tasman Spirit has apparently sealed their fate completely. Those who have traditionally fished along the shores by wading in and casting their nets, making an average of 200 rupees a day through catching small fish, are rendered jobless because the ocean is completely bereft of these fish.

According to Ghani, these fishermen were banned from entering the sea in the month of June since this is the breeding season for fish. When they were about to resume their routine activities at the end of July, they were forced to stay away from the seawaters due to the heavy monsoon and the Met office’s cyclone forecast. “We could not venture out for weeks, but when the weather became normal, the spillage from the vessel ruined us completely,” he contends.

Many of the villagers living in the vicinity of the oil spill are now suffering from asthma, sore eyes and throat infections because of the fumes from the oil. With dwindling incomes, most of them are unable to visit doctors for medical help, as they simply cannot afford it. When they have barely enough to eat, how could they afford doctor’s fees or buy expensive medicines?

Despite claims to the contrary, government health officials have failed to visit the affected areas to supply basic health care to the beleaguered fishing communities. “The government has proved itself incapable and unprepared to tackle the problem of oil spillage successfully. It was not equipped to meet the challenge of flood, fire, cyclone and earthquakes and that is why the recent oil disaster has played havoc with the fishing communities,” says an activist of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum.

The Marine Fisheries Department, on their part, has warned local fishermen to steer their boats at least 600 feet away from the stranded oil tanker and not to use any flammable item such as matches at the harbour. Some 2,500 fishing boats operate from the harbour, including 900 gill-netters and 1600 trawlers.

A market survey reveals that rahu, which was sold in the market for 200 rupees a kilo before the spill, is now sold between 100 and 120 rupees but there are no buyers. Likewise, the prices for pomfret, shrimp, prawns, lobsters and Spanish mackerel or surmai have plummeted, falling between 40 and 50 per cent. “We eat fish at least twice a week, but after the news of the oil spill we have stopped cooking it,” says a resident of Karachi, who obviously wants to avoid health problems.

Likewise, some of the fishermen who continue to brave the choppy waters of the deep sea, complain that the price of seafood at Karachi Fish Harbour has plummeted due to the continuing oil spill from the tanker. “It is very difficult to catch shrimp which have become scarce while the catch of other species has also been cut down to half,” says a local fisherman. Many fishermen return empty-handed, as the venomous oil spillage continues to take its toll. “The figures for the fish species have declined but it is difficult to give an accurate number,” says an official of the provincial ministry of Fisheries and Livestock.

According to some reports, in normal circumstances around 100,000 to 150,000 kilograms of seafood land at the Karachi harbour. These include shrimps, the fish known as suwa, Spanish mackerel or surmai, spotted mackerel known as kargan, white pomfret, catfish and black pomfret.

Pakistan has a total coastal area of 1,050 kilometres, of which Sindh province has a shoreline of 350 kilometres. The recent oil spill has affected 30 kilometres of Karachi’s coast, from Abdul Rahim village in Hawkes Bay, Keamari Town to Lathbasti in Bin Qasim town jurisdiction. Some of the villages which are directly affected due to the spill include Baba Bhit, Shamspir, Unisabad, Kaka Village, Salihabad, Chashma village, Rehri, and others. Independent estimates, however, say that the massive oil spill into the Arabian sea would affect the lives of at least two million fishermen directly, as the fishermen will be forced to stay away from the waters for an indefinite period.

The 235-meter long Greek vessel has almost shattered the backbone of the Pakistani fishing industry. About 450 edible species of fish have been detected in the Arabian sea and Pakistan has over 100 species, of which at least 25 are of commercial importance. According to official statistics, the Pakistan government exports 600 thousand metric tons of marine fish and earns eight billion rupees annually through the export of seafood. It exports fish to several countries, including the US, European Union, Japan, China, Sri Lanka and others. Officials of Sindh fisheries said the oil spill has had an immediate impact. The prices of Pakistani exports slumped 10 to 25 per cent and many of the orders placed by foreign entrepreneurs have already been cancelled.

oil-spill-4-sep03Mir Jat, a local contractor who deals mainly in exporting shrimp and lobsters, says that they were to export sea fish to the Gulf market, but received a message from the importers asking them to postpone the order. “Before the news of the spill we were finding it difficult to meet international orders, but now we are finding it difficult to find a market for our fish,” says Mir Jat. He said they have stopped lifting the catch from local fishermen due to the shortage of buyers .

Contrary to official claims that the oil spill is neither disastrous for marine life nor would it create an environmental catastrophe, independent environmentalists believe that this spillage of crude oil will not only have a long-term effect on human beings, marine life and the environment but would jeopardise the survival of thousands of fishermen who depend solely on the catch from the sea for their livelihood. “The presence of crude oil will adversely affect the coastal fisheries of Karachi,” says Mohammed Tahir Qureshi, who monitors Pakistan’s coastland for the World Conservation Union.

He said the oil slick itself is dangerous to marine life because it creates anaerobic conditions or an oxygen deficiency in the seawater, as the large quantity of oil restricts sunlight entering the water. “If you cut the oxygen supply for the small seedlings and mangrove saplings, it will finish them off. In addition to this, the oil contains hydrocarbons, sulfur, wax and different gases and when the flora and fauna come in contact with them, it would be detrimental to their health,” says Qureshi.

Experts on the subject believe that since the grounded ship in Karachi has dumped unadulterated crude oil directly into the sea, the percentage of oil mixed with sea water has gone far beyond permissible limits, even outside the immediate environs of the spill. “The aromatic contents of hydrocarbon such as benzenes are carcinogenic and heavy metals such as mercury are highly toxic and when taken in by an organism are not secreted but accumulate in the body,” says an expert.

Crude oil is basically a mixture of chemicals, many of which are harmful to marine life in various ways. According to these experts, fish that survive the catastrophic effect of the oil spill would accumulate high levels of mercury, which would then be passed on to larger fish on the higher levels of the food chain and eventually to people. “Pakistan can simply forget about exporting fish for several years,” says one of these experts. The international market may not differentiate between the fish affected by the spill and fish from the deep sea and as a result, all the catch from Pakistan may face a potential ban.

Karachi Port Trust Chairman, Ahmed Hayat on his part, plays down the threat of the spill reaching the mangroves. “The mangrove forest is in no danger from the spill because the oil would have to pass through the port to get to the forest and we are controlling the spill at the port,” he said. According to him, the port authority has cordoned the ship off with “booms,” large air-filled balloon-like objects made of rubber that stop the spill from spreading and suck in the oil which is disposed of later.

However, environmental experts believe the official statements are just eyewash and not even close to the truth. “If the spill makes its way to Karachi’s mangrove forests, which are rich breeding grounds for local fisheries, it would seriously threaten fish eggs and marine life such as sea turtles, shrimp, crabs and even dolphins,” says Ahmed Said, a marine ecology expert who works for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). He said around 16 kilometres of the Arabian Sea coast had already been polluted. “We can see it spread all over. On the beach the oil is almost three times more than it was on July 28, and we can no longer see the natural colour of the sand,” he said.

According to Said, the affected area is the natural habitat for small fish and he fears that they will either die or migrate and that would be an irreparable loss. He said that the heavy winds from monsoons, the worst to hit Pakistan in a decade, could push the slick west of Karachi to the breeding grounds of two rare turtle species, the Green Turtle and Olive Ridley. “There is a real possibility that the spillage might travel westwards in view of the highly volatile movement of the sea in the monsoon season,” said Mr. Said.

Environmentalists maintain that the oil spill would have two types of impact when it comes to marine life, short-term and long-term. “The immediate impact is the death of smaller fish and the physical coverage of the oil would cause the immediate demise of the mangroves,” says Mr. Qureshi. He further added that a number of micro-organisms, including a number of plankton and phytoplankton would die. “It will affect birds such as seagulls, kites, herons and waders, making it difficult for them to fly,” he said.

According to Mr. Qureshi, this oil spillage would change the composition of the soil permanently and it would have long-term effects on marine life. “In December 1999 in the Korangi Creek area there was an oil spill from Bin Qasim Power Station and Pakistan State Oil. We have not seen any natural regeneration of the mangroves since,” he says.

Experts said that due to marine pollution some fish would migrate from this area to other waters like the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, because of the disturbance in their habitat. There are more than 700 species, who according to these experts, are likely to migrate. “This would again cause a loss to the country’s exchequer,” he said.

According to these experts, not only will the oil spill contaminate the fish with deadly chemicals but the fishermen who operate in the area during the oil spillage will also suffer serious damage to their nets and fishing craft. “It is a huge oil spill and has already affected a number of fishing grounds, extending from Clifton uptil Rehri and Ibrahim Hyderi and the fish catch is likely to decrease manifold,” said a local environmentalist. Fishermen who come into physical contact with the oil will suffer.

Talking about the effects that it would have on the birds, wildlife experts said that the crude oil that will stick to fur or feathers can cause many problems. It causes hypothermia in birds by reducing or destroying the insulation and waterproofing properties of their feathers. As a result, according to a WWF official, the birds become easy prey, as their feathers, matted by oil, impair their ability to fly. “Birds sink or drown because oily feathers weigh more and cannot trap enough air between them to keep them buoyant,” he said.

These experts said that birds lose body weight as their metabolism attempts to combat low body temperature, while marine mammals lose body weight when they cannot feed due to contamination of their environment by oil. They said that the birds become dehydrated and can starve as they give up or reduce drinking, diving and swimming to look for food. According to these experts, if they ingest the oil by accident it can also cause their demise.

Some researchers at the Centre for Molecular Genetics (CMG) at Karachi University believe that if the anti-slick operation is not started at the shores of Karachi harbour immediately, highly deadly aromatic compounds in the crude oil may start contaminating the air and underground water in Karachi, giving rise to genetic disorders. “Aromatic compounds in the crude oil including phenol, are not only cancer-causing but they are a major cause of genetic disorders,” says Dr. Jamila, a researcher at the CMG. She said studies carried out in the past proved that petroleum intoxication can result in memory and stamina loss, nausea, muscle weakness and many other disorders, which cannot even be treated.

The authorities have started spraying dispersants in order to break the layer of oil spilled from the stranded vessel, which according to them is not only very expensive, but is deadlier than other chemicals coming from the industrial area. “The authorities are trying to settle down the crude oil by spraying dispersants during their anti-slick operation, but in this way, all the oil will simply accumulate at the bottom of the sea for decades, causing destruction of marine life as well as creating health problems for Karachiites,” says Dr. Nuzhat Ahmed, CMG director. She maintains that the oxygen-producing plants and algae, scientifically known as phytoplankton could perish and this will endanger fish, shrimps, crabs and all other marine organisms and the whole ecosystem will be badly affected.

According to these experts there are a wide range of tools and techniques available to clean the spill. “Spraying dispersants to clean the oil spill is simply a health hazard,” says Tahir Qureshi. He maintains that they have a wide range of options available, which are much safer, and more environment friendly. For example, oil-consuming bacteria, which are available in the Europe and the Persian Gulf. “The bacteria is already there in the sea waters and all they have to do is to reactivate it so that it should start consuming oil,” he says. According to Qureshi, during the Gulf war in the early ’90s, this technology was used on a limited scale, but was quite successful. “If they don’t have this technology available here, they should have borrowed it from the countries who already have it,” he says.

The manner in which the authorities are struggling to deal with the national tragedy, it seems that the poor fishermen have to either migrate or learn the ropes of another trade. As observers put it, “They may have to say goodbye to a centuries-old family occupation.