A Whale of a Tale

In the coastal areas of Pakistan, a group of fishermen make daily decisions and save hundreds of rare marine species in the Arabian Sea. One such fisherman is Iqrar, originally from the north of Pakistan, who never thought that his work would win him titles and awards. But Iqrar’s work is extraordinary. Since 2012, he has safely released live endangered, threatened and protected species including whale sharks, sea turtles, and rays, amongst others, and it is fair to say he has earned the accolades.

Working as a labourer well before he became a fisherman, Iqrar had adjusted to living in the mountains. He had to move due to political unrest and ended up on the coast in search of a livelihood to support his family. For the coastal communities, prosperity is equivalent and proportional to the abundant fish in the sea, so naturally for Iqrar fishing was the first choice. He has successfully demonstrated that change can come in any form, whether it is in your attitude, practice or approach and saving the life of an animal is not very different to saving the life of a human being. The threat of by-catch, unwanted catch or incidental catch poses a real threat, about which fishermen around the coast of Pakistan are well aware.

By-catch, however, has its economic benefits. For instance, catching a shark is of more value than catching tuna. There are around 500 gillnet vessels targeting tuna and tuna-like species in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of Pakistan with a by-catch rate of 33 sharks caught per square kilometre of net deployed per year, which means an average length of a gillnet of five kilometres ends up catching around 4,000 sharks per year. If this number is further extrapolated to the total number of vessels, around two million sharks alone can be caught in Pakistan leading to changes in the ecosystem, and disrupting the food chain leading to a collapse in fisheries. The statistics above might not mean anything to many people, but for Iqrar, this is serious and he feels responsible.

For him, this responsibility comes from how he sees fishing and fisheries. “What is fishing? Is fishing a business or a means of livelihood? If it is a business, I have no issues, one can do as he pleases and take everything from the sea. But if you consider it a livelihood, it has to be sustainable, it must be maintained for future generations, otherwise, there will be no fish left in the sea,” explains Iqrar.

But with almost no data available on by-catch, government line agencies or policymakers can not make informed decisions. Since 2012, Iqrar has helped provide data on all the fish that he catches including fishing locations and species composition. But more importantly, he is an innovator and a trendsetter, the first one to take the initiative to release live endangered, threatened and protected species entangled in his net. He has very actively been engaged in the crew based observer programme of WWF-Pakistan and has understood the core value of conservation work.

He has, with pure dedication and valour, dived into the sea to untangle the biggest shark on Earth, a whale shark. Iqrar has so far released 18 whale sharks, two manta rays, one guitarfish, two sunfish, three sea snakes, three rhomboid squids, one beaked whale, two bottlenose dolphins and hundreds of sea turtles. He takes pride in safely releasing the by-catch and in working with the crew-based observer programme that WWF-Pakistan has successfully initiated for conserving and protecting biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction.