Abbas Khan feeds a hot wire from a rickety generator into a river, a fishing technique he argues is more environmentally friendly than others used in northwest Pakistan – although he also admits it has killed several of his friends.
Hundreds of fishermen risk their lives daily to hunt the rare fish known as “sher mahi,” found in the Kabul River which flows from the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan into neighbouring Pakistan, before merging with the Indus.
Some swim for hours on tire tubes, dragging nets behind them. Others use more brutal – and illegal – techniques: spraying pesticides directly into the river or, like Khan, using the electric current from generators to stun the river’s inhabitants into submission.
For those in a hurry, meanwhile, there is always the brutal but effective “Khatin bomb”: dynamite.
These imprecise techniques are a threat to the river’s population, say dismayed conventional fishermen who make their living selling sher mahi, considered the best fish for eating in Pakistan’s northwest.
“Fishing with dynamite and generators kills the entire population,” says Ghani Ur Rehman.
Like dozens of his fellow fishermen, the 58-year-old spends hours each day swimming the river on a tire tube, dragging his net behind him. He catches only a few kilos at a time and has done for 25 years.
“Now, the fish’s population has decreased and the main reason is an increase in fish hunting,” he says, emptying his net on to the shore.
Along the banks of the Kabul River hundreds of visitors can be seen enjoying family days of boating and wading, topped off with a hearty meal of fresh sher mahi and other river fish at dozens of huts and restaurants.
Sher mahi, which has few bones and is found in Pakistan only in the Kabul River, is similar to catfish, growing to a maximum of 30 centimetres (12 inches).
Some fishermen say its name comes from the Persian word “sheer”, or “milk”, due to its rich oily taste.
Rehman says he makes on average 600 to 1,000 rupees (US$6-$9) a day – but that on days when the fish are plentiful his income can soar to 10,000 rupees.
“Some of my friends had died because of electrofishing but now we have learnt it, now we know how to hunt in the best way”
Speaking to AFP along the river, Khan admitted that using a generator in the water was “scary” – but he insisted that, despite his lack of safety gear, he has learned the correct technique.
“Some of my friends had died because of electrofishing but now we have learnt it, now we know how to hunt in the best way,” he explained, before demonstrating how to attach wires to a metal rod then place the rod in a net in the water.
“It stuns the fish and brings it to surface. Then we collect the fish and put it a cooler,” Khan said.
“Some people use pesticides for fishing but that destroys the entire population of fish. It also poisons the water and kills everything in the river, wherever it flows,” he argued.
‘Time running out’
Rehman’s and Khan’s anxiety is echoed by other fishermen in Haji Zai, in the suburbs of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial capital Peshawar.
Fishing by dynamite was banned by authorities in 1982, but there was not a serious decrease until after the launch of a military operation in the adjacent tribal areas in 2009 made the explosives slightly – but only slightly – more difficult to get hold of.
Fishing with generators and chemicals remains common, despite also being banned.
Khair Gul – known as “Larram”, or “Scorpion”, an old childhood nickname that stuck – is mayor of Haji Zai village and himself an avid fishermen. Authorities, he says, are not serious about stopping poaching.
“It will eliminate the entire fish population if this illegal hunting is not stopped”
“We have taken action against such groups but the local officials used to set them free after taking (a bribe) of 400 to 500 rupees ($5),” he says. “Use of dynamite, generator shocks and poisonous chemicals is not only a crime but also dangerous for health and causes disease. We ask the government to ban it completely.”
But the problems with a ban become obvious after speaking with officials.
A team of nine people covers the entire district of Peshawar – a stretch of more than 70 kilometres along the Kabul River. They have no vehicles, no boats, and no equipment, says senior government official Hidayat Shah, who works in the government’s fisheries department.
Somehow Shah’s team managed to lodge cases against more than 60 illegal hunters from 2015 to 2016, confiscating some 23 generators – but, thanks to the slow-acting courts system, not a single case has yet reached a resolution.
In Charsadda and Nowshera the teams are less than half the size of that in Peshawar, another government official told AFP.
But time is running out, the fishermen say.
“It will eliminate the entire fish population if this illegal hunting is not stopped,” says fisherman Khad Gul.