Interview with Umair Shahid, Indian Ocean Tuna Manager at WWF – Ongoing problems of illegal and unsustainable fishing

By Hannah Schartmann.

Umair Shahid is working as the Indian Ocean Tuna Manager for the WWF’s Smart Fishing Initiative (SFI), which has the overall aim to end overfishing in the oceans.

A warm welcome to Umair Shahid. Can you tell me a bit more about you? What is your background?

I am a development professional who has been working with WWF for about 12 years and have experience working on sustainability, fisheries, climate change adaptation, ocean governance, environment education, resource mobilization and research. Currently, I am working as the Indian Ocean Tuna Manager for WWF.

I have always believed in change, and the world of conservation allows to challenges oneself in adapting to the changing world, this has allowed to reinvent myself in many forms, for instance, I lived in the Indus Delta for several years to understand the complexities of the environmental realm. I have represented the Government of Pakistan at the CBD-COP13 and led WWF delegation at the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, where my work involves coordination with the member states of the IOTC and more than 50 WWF offices globally.

Before joining the regional lead position for Indian Ocean, I was heading the marine programme for WWF-Pakistan and began developing the marine initiative at the age of 27. Marine programmes, such as the regional tuna initiative, fishery improvement projects, mangrove conservation, market transformation, shark conservation and ABNJ tuna project are some of the spinoff initiatives that I developed during my time with WWF-Pakistan and I raised three million US dollars for the programme.

You have worked for the WWF– Pakistan – Smart Fishing Initiative. What is the main aim of this initiative?

The WWF’s Smart Fishing Initiative (SFI) was a global initiative, which aimed to end overfishing in the Oceans. Our Oceans have been managed under several treaties and have been a limit source of protein feeding the global population around the world. The Oceans have been fished under the ‘freedom of the seas’ concept which was later replaced by the UNCLOS, ‘Law of the Sea’, but unsustainable fishing with technological advances left uncontrolled keeps putting pressure on the coastal and marine fish stocks and their habitats. The objective was to reduce the impact of fishing activities while being able to conserve the world’s most commercially valuable species, such as tuna.

WWF through the SFI pushed for stronger measures promoting the use of technology in fishing operations for having more transparency and traceability, creating sustainable market incentives, spurring fishers, processors, buyers and retailers to commit to eco-labels and sell sustainable seafood to a growing and demanding market, ensuring that market incentives support and safeguard livelihoods and secure long-term fisheries recovery.

What is your motivation to work for WWF?

WWF is not only an organization, it is like a family, and since I was young I wanted to engage with people from different spheres of life and countries. WWF is all about people and change, what motivates me the most is having this amazing sense of sharing and being part of a bigger community, who are dealing with similar challenges and sharing work experiences which when brought together allow to overcome the biggest challenges we deal with and that

you know that you are not alone and that help is just around the corner. Moreover, one of the other motivating factors while working with WWF is the freedom of doing what you believe in and you are most passionate about. If you walk in with ideas, people always treat you with respect, and try to understand and provide you space for being able to implement them – and the matter of the fact that you can find a WWF colleague in any part of the world doing some great conservation work and able to support you across continents is really special motivating and inspiring.

On which achievement are you in particular proud of?

I believe, the achievement that I am really proud of is building the marine programme in Pakistan and extending it beyond boundaries. During the Smart Fishing Initiative, we aimed to build a Northern Indian Ocean alliance. We, all at WWF managed to work on setting some great practical and realistic examples of conservation work, which includes data collection and knowledge management in tuna directed gillnet/driftnet fisheries, investigating the level of bycatch, including species composition and mitigation trials, regional collaboration and research, fishery improvement projects. All of these developments have led to having champions in the Indian Ocean, and Pakistan slowly and gradually started to champion bycatch mitigation work – to the point that six years after we started engaging on marine conservation (when no one really wanted to talk about tuna/sharks or dolphins).

Do you know how many cetaceans died approximately every year in fishing gears in the Indian Ocean compared to the other Oceans?

I have been working in Pakistan on evaluating the cetacean mortality year-wise from the data collected on gillnet vessels operating in the Arabian Sea. This study has then fed into regional/Indian Ocean wide studies, which have looked at approximating how many cetaceans died annually in fishing operations. It has been estimated that around 300,000 cetaceans are killed in fishing operations globally – there are records available with FAO on species-wise mortality for different Oceans and fishing operations. Based on a recent study, estimated cetacean bycatch peaked at almost 100,000 individuals per year during 2004- 2006, but has declined by over 15% since then. The gillnet fisheries caught an estimated cumulative total of 4.1 million small cetaceans between 1950 and 2018 (Anderson et al., 2020).

Are gillnets the most dangerous fishing nets for marine mammals?

The traditional approach to characterizing bycatch has been taxa or gear specific,considering bycatch intensity by gear types worldwide. A study reveals that gillnets had the highest bycatch intensity followed by longlines and trawls (Lewison et al., 2014). The International Whaling Commissions’ Bycatch mitigation initiative (BMI) has also prioritized gillnets as the most dangerous fishing nets for marine mammals. The pelagic gillnets (driftnets) usually target tunas, and account for around 34% of the total tuna catches in the Indian Ocean. In the Indian Ocean there are 22 countries, who fish exclusively with gillnets. Among those who have the largest gillnet fleet, catches and likely to have largest cetacean bycatch are, Iran, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Oman, Yemen, UAE and Tanzania.
These nine countries together may account for roughly 96% of all cetacean bycatch.

What do you think why marine mammals are captured in fishing gears? Are they not “seeing” the nets?

It’s quite possible that they may not or may be seeing the nets. Marine mammals are intelligent creatures and they move about using echolocation. In theory they should be seeing the nets, but it seems like they are perhaps to focused on depredating or following fish that they get entangled in the nets, and since they are fast swimming they get coiled up and entangle badly. This also indicates that we do not know everything about these animals and are not certain in the manner they behave.

Is there a lot of illegal fishing in the Indian Ocean? Why is it extremely difficult to control it?

Illegal fishing is still a major challenge in the Indian Ocean. According to a UN FAO report, one out of every five fish is caught illegally. The annual losses emerging from illegal fishing accounts to around 400 million US dollars, and this loss is only subject to East Africa. The Indian Ocean being wider has many other forms of fishing, which goes unregulated and unreported as well. Since the Indian Ocean is very dynamic and comprises of developing coastal states, who are at different layers of their own management and comprises of around 90% small-scale and artisanal vessels, they usually fly under the radar and have no control over on area of fishing. In addition, there is a lack of exchange of information to better monitor and control transnational fisheries activities, especially in this region where tuna fisheries are important.

Which demands do you have regarding sustainable fishing in the Indian Ocean?

Our ambition is to transform the fisheries in the Indian Ocean, starting from gillnets/driftnet fisheries, which is the least studied fishery in the Indian Ocean. Our aim is to change the fishery completely, but we do not see a radical change, as freezing or banning gillnet fisheries would not have a positive effect, and we are not ready to put hundreds and thousands of fishers at risk of losing their jobs. We feel we need to work on making a sequential change and at different levels, i.e. a) building a robust monitoring programme for tuna gillnet/driftnet fisheries, b) work with a participatory approach with fisher’s to collect data, and support safe handling and release of marine mammals, c) develop fishing strategies that serve as a bycatch mitigation toolbox for gillnet fisheries, d) reduce the lengths of the nets significantly in compliance with UNGA regulation and the IOTC resolutions.

Do you have any message to the public regarding the conservation of marine mammals?

There is still a lot we need to do, public engagement and interest is essential and helps create pressure on governments. If we are ought to make a change and a sustainable transformation, we would require public support to join hands with organizations such as WWF, among others to help in the conservation work in different parts of the world. Pakistan, is a very rich area and has a beautiful coastline and wide-spread EEZ, we require finances to sustain monitoring programmes, actively work with the fisheries network of people and ensure that tools developed for bycatch mitigation are implemented. We require support in many forms, voicing the opinion, and where possible joining us in implementation work. We would love to host scientists from around the world to help out with the conservation work in Pakistan.

Anderson, R.C. et al. (2020): Cetacean bycatch in Indian Ocean tuna gillnet fisheries.
Endangered Species Research 41: 39-53.
Lewison, R.L. et al. (2014): Global patterns of marine mammal, seabird and sea turtle
bycatch reveal taxa-specific and cumulative megafauna hotspots. Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences 111(14): 5271-5276.

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