Reading time

“If you give nature space, it starts to heal itself and take care of us again.”

Ocean Witness Salim shares his story.

Salim Dablo is from the Indus Delta in Pakistan, one of the richest ecosystems in the world. Witnessing his community using unsustainable fishing gear as a response to decreasing catches, Salim knew it was not a long-term solution. He took initiative to realise a positive change and started to work with WWF-Pakistan to protect coastal ecosystems and simultaneously support the community’s livelihood. Now, this Ocean Witness wants to share their local solutions with other communities around the world.

become an ocean witness
02 October 2020 | Keti Bunder, Pakistan

What does the ocean mean to you and your community?

I belong to the Dablo people and was born and raised in Keti Bunder, a fishing community of 400 people in Pakistan’s Indus Delta. As most people in our village, my father was a fisherman – a profession that I admired. As a child, I thought that the biggest possible achievement was to sail a fishing vessel. I believed this experience turned boys into men. So when my older brother needed my help during a multiple day fishing trip, I was very excited. My brother was the skipper of the boat and taught me how to operate the vessel, where to store fish and many other things.

One night I could not sleep and just sat on the deck enjoying the starry sky while dreaming that I would one day become a captain myself. Then I heard a sound that I had never heard before. My brother called me and together we stared into the water; I was sure something very dangerous was lurking in the dark ocean. I waved my torch like crazy and then I saw a giant animal rising out of the water: a whale! She swam alongside the boat for a moment, and when she left we saw her calf beside her. It was an unforgettable moment and the first time that I realised that animals are just like humans. From that moment on, I feel very connected to the ocean – at the age of 38 I am still a citizen of the sea.

“Fishing is a way of life to us. It is much more than a profession.”
Selim

I remember the days when my dad came home with few fish, which meant we had to go to bed with an empty stomach. Many fishermen in our community have debts because there are too few fish, while they have to catch a lot to pay loans and to maintain their families: a never-ending situation. Our village is situated on a peninsula and the ocean is the basis for our daily activities. Our ancestors taught us that mangroves are special trees that create life in the delta. Mangrove forests are important to us, being a source of wood and fish, but also to the coastal and marine ecosystems. Working with WWF-Pakistan has made us realise that all life is interconnected.

Fishing is a way of life to us. It is much more than a profession. But people were not aware that marine resources are not infinite – we have been slowly killing marine life. Before, our fishing practices were traditional. But in the past decades I noticed that more and more fishermen wanted to catch as much as possible by using unsustainable fishing gear and technology. I did the same before, but not anymore.

 

Now more than ever it is important that we respect the ocean, because we increasingly depend on her. As sea levels are rising we are losing land to the ocean. When I was young, many people grew crops with the freshwater from the Indus River, but the river is gone and the land has become saline and too wet to grow crops. According to WWF, we lost 8,000 hectares of land area in Keti Bunder in the past few years. Other consequences of climate change are changing weather patterns and disappearing fish species.

“In order to survive we have to respond to market dynamics.”
Selim

How does the community respond to these changes?

As fish have become scarce and the weather more extreme, our way of life has become vulnerable. Many people have moved inland to search for a better quality of life. On the other hand, due to political issues people from northern Pakistan migrated to our coastal area. The increased competition made members of our community use cheaper nets with a smaller mesh size that also capture juveniles, which is not good for the fish population. It also became more common to leave plastic nets behind when they get stuck at the bottom of the ocean – it was all about efficiency and making money.

Because fish species were disappearing, we had to shift our target catch to crabs, razor clams, jellyfish, small croakers and mullets. When I was a child there was no market for these species, but in order to survive we have to respond to market dynamics.

What inspired you to contribute to a healthier ocean?

I had known for a while that we had to change our attitude and fishing practices if we wanted to secure our future livelihoods. One day, I was at the beach when a WWF team member came by and asked me about my perspective on the future of our community. That night I could not stop thinking about how our children and grandchildren would be able to cope with declining fish stocks and harsh weather circumstances if the situation only would get worse. I did not know where to start, but I did know that we had to.

“I did not know where to start, but I did know that we had to.”
Selim

The next day I called a community meeting. At first, the community did not take me seriously as usually only the village elders call for meetings. Luckily, the village elders were the first to arrive and the rest of the people followed them. I explained the issue, but still did not know where to start to solve the problem. It was one of the elders who said that I already took the first step by calling this meeting and that we already had started working on the solution.

With the support of WWF and other organisations we started educating fishermen and working on other solutions. Since our community was already aware of the importance of mangroves, in one of the first projects we planted mangrove trees. WWF taught us how to make our fishing practices more sustainable, for example by releasing juvenile fish and crabs from our catches. An issue we were facing was a lack of storage, so we asked NGOs and others for insulated plastic containers that helped us a lot to reduce harvest loss. Many of the projects we implemented made our fishing practices more sustainable as well as more profitable.

“It feels very good to be more empowered as a community.”
Selim

Soon, because of the many successes, I was leading the community work and the village elders gave me their blessing to coordinate these conservation initiatives even though I was a young community member. It feels very good to be more empowered as a community, we are happier now.  In addition to the economic benefits, we have learned that if you give nature space, it starts to heal itself and take care of us again. If we work together we can protect coastal habitats and our livelihoods.


How can you bring these local solutions to scale?

The mangroves we planted five years ago are now becoming a dense forest, providing a nursery for crabs, fish and razor clams. Protected areas, in my opinion, are the best solution to protect mangroves and other important coastal and marine habitats. Communities have made voluntary commitments to establish no-take zones or temporary closures of fishing grounds; both can contribute to protect important habitats and safeguard our livelihoods. However, for fishing communities to understand the benefits of these measures a massive educational programme is necessary. Connecting with coastal communities in other parts of Pakistan and the rest of the world by sharing experiences and successes could be part of such a programme.

“The greatest challenge you have to overcome is your own way of thinking.”
Selim

Now you have the opportunity, what would you like to say to other community leaders?

Sometimes it seems impossible to accelerate change, because we have to overcome cultural, socio-economic and other challenges, but the greatest challenge you have to overcome is your own way of thinking. If you are convinced that change is possible, convincing others becomes easy. Practice what you preach. Although there will be problems on the way, you will move forward in the end. If you feel like giving up, think about our children – we have to change the ocean for the better for the generations of tomorrow.

share this article

Salim

Keti Bunder, Pakistan

Salim Dablo is from the Indus Delta in Pakistan, one of the richest ecosystems in the world. Witnessing his community using unsustainable fishing gear as a response to decreasing catches, Salim knew it was not a long-term solution. He took initiative to realise a positive change and started to work with WWF-Pakistan to protect coastal ecosystems and simultaneously support the community’s livelihood.