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An interview with Moazzam Khan, ex-Director General, Marine Fisheries Department 'Our post-harvest losses are 90 percent'

Moazzam Khan, one of the leading fisheries scientists of the country, has been associated with the fisheries research and administration since 1973. He previously served as the Director General of Marine Fisheries Department for more than a decade. Under

Updated May 29, 2020

Moazzam Khan, one of the leading fisheries scientists of the country, has been associated with the fisheries research and administration since 1973. He previously served as the Director General of Marine Fisheries Department for more than a decade. Under his leadership, the department received national and international recognition. Mr. Khan has also served as CEO of Fisheries Development Board. Currently he serves as the Technical Advisor (Marine Fisheries) in WWF-Pakistan. Over the span of his career, he has published more than 220 scientific papers in national and international journals, alike. BR Research recently spoke to him to understand fisheries of Pakistan. Selected excerpts from the conversation are given below.

BRR: Let us first begin with the overview of the fisheries sector?

Moazzam Khan: Although most of the fishing activity happens near the coast, our fisheries sector is not entirely poor. We have vessels that go up to Somalia for fishing, that is termed as the Area Beyond National Jurisdiction (ABNJ). We are in no way lagging behind with our peers; we are at par with the required use of technology and devices.  The larger vessels are obviously facilitated with the likes of Automated Identification System (AIS). There are boats which seats one or two people, and such also where about over a 100 people can work.

But to overall define the fisheries sector, it is difficult because as per the last census there are about 13,000 fishing boats- probably even more. Our fleet size is much bigger than necessary. Coming towards the production, it used to be near 650,000 tons. Balochistan landings are still stable, but in Sindh due to overfishing, landing is decreasing- the fleet size is huge, not to forget the usage of illegal gears.

Marine sector production is near 400,000 to 500,000 tons. However, our biggest setback is the post-harvest losses, which are about 90 percent. A major part of the fish catch is not fit for consumption, therefore, converted into poor quality fish meal, at best.

BRR: Does that mean utilisation for export and local consumption is out of the remaining 10 percent?

MK: That produce is used, but it is of a very poor quality. Despite that there is demand in certain export markets. For example, the price for Pomfret is Rs 2,500/kg, but it is available in the market for Rs 400/kg also. The quality can be gauged. In spite of the immense post harvest losses, it is being used in one way or the other.

BRR: Given that post harvest losses are 90 percent, and some percent of that low quality fish is also exported. Firstly, where are the export markets and secondly, what is the price differential when the same kind of fish is exported by other countries?

MK: It is cyclical. Pakistan sells, both, top quality as well as downgraded quality. The latter naturally does not find its demand coming from countries in the EU or the USA. But demand exists in places like China, Thailand, Korea, etc.  If we add value and improve quality, exports can be increased threefold without much effort. For that, most importantly post harvest losses will have to be reduced. If fish is kept without ice for more than twenty minutes, it becomes unfit for human consumption.

BRR: What percent of the production is consumed locally and how much is exported? What is the status currently, and what should it be in your opinion?

MK: According to my own calculations at various points, about 10 to 20 percent is locally consumed; the biggest consumption is, of course, with the coastal communities- called subsistence consumption. To explain how much the consumption ideally should be- we should have at least three meals of fish in a week- throughout the year. In fact, there should be more consumption in summer as it has quality protein that digests quickly.

BRR: On one hand, news suggests that seafood exports have increased. On the other hand, coastal areas are depleted. What is the truth?

MK: It is a very unique sector; normal theoretical knowledge fails in fisheries. Fisheries is near collapsing in Pakistan. FAO's report of 2016 says our major fisheries are near collapse. But exports are rising. Even last month despite the lockdown, the quantities and values had gone up. Reason for that is some fish that are being sold, has a high price. Average Unit Price (AUP) has increased. While the quantity of low quality fish being exported has increased.

Despite this, we annually import 10,000-15,000 tons sourced from Vietnam and Thailand. It is called "Pangasius" and is sold everywhere, in weddings, restaurants, etc.

BRR: Pakistan has a huge population, however its per capita fish consumption in one of the lowest, what is the reason for this?

MK: Going by the official numbers, it is around 1.8kg but in reality it’s probably even lower. For a good six months, from March to September, fish isn't consumed in major population areas because it is considered "garam". Fishing is banned only for two months; it is allowed for the rest of the year. The ban too, is only applicable on trawling. In Punjab, where there is highest consumption, there isn’t a single fish shop open after April.

Pakistan has such a big population (read: market). If it is not consumed locally, one cannot solely depend on export.  In other countries worldwide, local consumption is a very big market. Not all kinds of fish can be exported, and local consumption is also not very high. Residents of the coastal areas have a per capita consumption of 30-40 kg/year. Compare that to the whole country's per capita consumption of 1.8kg/year.

This implies that fish consumption in itself is not such a big problem; the perceptions are such that certain foods are not to be consumed with fish. In other countries, dry milk is used as an ingredient in the preparation of fish products, whereas we believe that milk and fish cannot be consumed together. The existence of such taboos and myths does not allow for fish consumption to increase.

BRR: What kind of preservation techniques and processing is involved when exporting?

MK: The best preservative is ice. However, fish kept in ice can maximum be consumed for five days. As a result, other methods have to be explored. Freezing, in which the temperature is dropped to below zero degrees, is also an option. But even at zero degrees, there are some bacteria and microbes that could ruin it. So the temperature has to be dropped even lower around minus 15-18 degrees.

Value addition, in essence means to take the product one step further in processing. In fisheries, it is completely different and unfathomable. Let me explain with an example. There is a frozen fish, there is a fish preserved with ice, and there is a live fish in its completely raw form. The live fish will fetch the best price- even five to ten times better than that for frozen fish. There is a fish called "Gissar" (Grouper). Its price has gone up till Rs1000/kg. But the same if exported in live form can fetch Rs3,000-4,000.

After live fish, the fish preserved with ice has the best price. The price of the frozen fish will range from Rs 400 to 500.

We export some shellfish in live form so the purpose to explain is the unique situation of value addition in fisheries.  The value addition in fisheries, is selling it in its live form. In Pakistan, there are about fifty processing plants that freeze fish. But even in frozen form, 70 percent of the sold items serve as raw material. It is defrosted in other countries; they conduct their own processing and then re-export it for a better price. Even in fisheries, Pakistan is a raw material exporter. It is still incapable of selling a shelf product.

BRR: Can you elaborate on the kind of processing the other countries do?

MK: They convert it into ready-to-cook products. Pakistan exports mainly in 2 kg packs in case of shrimp and 20 kg in case of fish that is then processed and converted into smaller packets. The price for the two, is obviously incomparable. Let’s say, one packet of 200 grams of the processed consumer product in Europe sells for £4. Pakistan may have exported 2 kg of fish as a raw material for the same price.

BRR: As you said before, fisheries sector has its own unique rule of value addition. In that regard, doesn’t the raw form fetch the higher price?

MK: Everything cannot be sold in live form. That is not to say that Pakistan does not sell in live form. Fishes like razor clam go from Pakistan in live form.

BRR: Let us talk a little bit about the scope and potential of aquaculture.

MK: Let me give a little background. The population of this region, that is, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan has a culture of consuming a fish called “Rahu”. What happens is that any fish that even looks like Rahu gets a good price which otherwise would not find a market.  This is another big dilemma that we, as consumers, do not understand and recognise the different kinds.

The whole industry of aquaculture is based on Rahu or Rahu look-alikes. As people get educated with time, fish like “Tilapia” are also gaining importance in aquaculture. But primarily, our fish farming is still limited to fresh waters. Even in that, the focus is more towards carp, majority of which is locally consumed.

BRR: In your opinion, should aquaculture be focused more towards local consumption or that which can be exported?

MK: Any country that has reached exports of Rs15 billion have focused on those breeds which can find an export market.

BRR: Does Pakistan possess the capacity and infrastructure to focus aquaculture towards exports?

MK: Aquaculture is very basic; it can be operated as a very low-tech industry. But tradition plays an important role. If we do not have the tradition of breeding fish, we'll never be able to do it.

BRR: What is the timeline for fish to be ready for harvesting, consuming and/or exporting?

MK: Timelines can vary across countries. If we talk about our own consumption- about a year to a year and a half. As I said before, Pakistan has never considered export when developing aquaculture. Pakistan started farming at the same time when other countries did like India, Bangladesh, etc. The world has gone ahead. Iran's production of shrimp today is 30,000 tons through farming. As for Pakistan, the fish we catch from natural habitat is reducing. We are hovering around 16,000 tons of shrimp. There are a lot of administrative and management constraints.

BRR: In an ideal situation, let us assume that this is developed, what increment do you see in fish production?

MK: Pakistan's export will increase by five times.  We have everything that’s required- sea, environment, habitat is ideal for farming.

BRR: Coming towards policy development and implementation, there was a Livestock and Fishing Policy back in 2007 which aimed at developing fisheries to achieve three goals: national economic growth, poverty alleviation and food security. What is the status and progress there?

MK: That policy never gained approval. It was made at the wrong time. The government was changing at that time. It was undertaken by the interim government and the new government could not give it the same importance. The policy paper stands today as just a document without any implementation.

BRR: The problems are known, and they have been around for a very long time. As a representative of WWF Pakistan, can you shed some light on how fishing activities can be conducted sustainably, with regards to resolving problems about industrial pollution, sewage pollution, over fishing etc?

MK: I will begin with talking about pollution. It is undeniably a big issue, but it is not the sole problem. Fortunately, it is restricted to areas around Karachi, whereas fishing is done far from the coast. Realistically speaking, pollution cannot be eliminated but it can be reduced. Moreover, there is no return in recycling so very few people want to venture towards it. Hence, ultimately even if one does put a plant, the cost is one directional.

When I joined WWF, tuna fish production was 70,000-80,000 tons annually. Since it is not locally consumed, it is smuggled to Iran. When I caught this activity of smuggling, we realized that while catching Tuna, we end up killing around 12,000 dolphins. We came up with a solution in collaboration with the fishermen, that instead of putting the net on the surface of the water, we could put it two meters below- called sub-surface gillnetting. This reduced the number of dolphins killed to about 63 as of 2019. The same applies for turtles. Even though they do get stuck in the nets, they do not die.

BRR: Are you talking about Turtle Exclusive Device (TED)?

MK: No. Although, I got TED introduced in Pakistan, the use of that is almost negligible. Imagine the capability that exists that with the help of the fishermen we were able to save 12,000 dolphins. We are also working on many other things like this for conservation.

BRR: You mentioned that the problem of pollution is restricted in the vicinity of Karachi, but Karachi is also the place that produces 90 percent of the fish production. Shouldn’t pollution then be a problem of considerable importance?

MK: It is not that Karachi is producing 90 percent of the fish. Two major harbours account for may be about 70 percent of the Pakistan’s fish but these are not caught around Karachi. Most of the fishing grounds are located from Karachi, including vast area of Sindh up to the Indian border and rich fishing grounds of Balochistan. The fishermen operate in these areas but land their catch in Karachi. Impact of pollution, has to be eliminated, but at present it is confined to Karachi and its vicinity. There should be no fear for consumption of fish being contaminated. However, avoid catch fish from Karachi Harbour and Gizri Creek as these are heavily polluted.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020