Rattled by sardine stock crash, India begins regulating its fisheries


Mounting regulations

Still, much more needs to be done. Not all coastal states are proactively regulating, including Gujarat, the largest fish producer. And state regulations only cover the sea up to 12 nautical miles (22 kilometers) from shore. The area beyond that, up to 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers), falls under federal rules — of which there are few. Yet this is the area plied by large mechanized vessels, producing most of the country’s fish catch.

“It’s a black hole, with limited knowledge of what rules apply where and who monitors and manages what,” said K.V. Akhilesh, a CFRI scientist in Mumbai.

Near-shore restrictions have previously been driven by traditional fishing communities, which are also voting blocs, trying to protect their livelihoods from larger boats. As a result, the rules can be ad hoc and vary from region to region. In the case of Maharashtra state, for instance, protests by traditional communities led to restrictions on purse seine boats that stray into their fishing grounds. These boats are now monitored with satellite tracking.

India’s fishing fleet is a mix of traditional boats, small and medium-size motorized vessels, and larger mechanized boats that go out farther and stay longer at sea. The latter produce most of the country’s catch. Image by Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar.

These are important moves. But the state’s focus on purse seiners has meant the trawlers that haul in the most catch have been let off the hook, said Ganesh Nakhawa, chairman of the Mumbai-based national association of purse seine fishers. “It’s much harder to fight the trawlers,” he said.

He and others say a federal law is needed to create some policy uniformity across the states, to better regulate the offshore waters that constitute India’s exclusive economic zone, and to improve coastal pollution affecting fish nurseries.

Enforcement also needs to improve, said scientist Akhilesh. Only Kerala has instituted a marine enforcement unit to monitor implementation of state fishing regulations, and there is no federal equivalent.

There are signs that the central government is inching toward greater intervention. In 2017, the government put out a marine fisheries policy for the first time, highlighting the challenges of overfishing and climate change. In February this year the government directed states to end bull trawling and the use of LED lights to attract fish, which traditional fishermen say harms young fish. There are also reports that a federal bill may be up for review by the legislature soon.

A similar bill proposed almost 10 years ago got shelved, say officials, because of conflicts between community, state and federal rights. Management councils of the sort now operational in Kerala could help resolve that, experts say.

Fishing community attitudes are changing too. The change is evident in younger fishermen like Nakhawa, who supports rules dictating mesh size and curtailing juvenile catch, as well as some older ones on the wharf at Mangalore, a major fishing harbor in southwest India. In interviews last October, many of the captains of small trawlers and purse seiners there said they support restrictions on LED light fishing and bull trawling. Many also said they support rules on juvenile catch.

A fisher in Mangalore harbor. Image by Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar.
A fisher in Mangalore harbor. Image by Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar.

One traditional community has even tried out voluntary catch quotas, hitherto unheard-of in India. Some believe the country will eventually have to adopt a quota system like that of the U.S. or Australia. Quotas are tough to formulate when thousands of vessels and multiple types of gear and species are involved, Mohamed said. India does not yet have the capability to do the expensive scientific surveys of fish stocks that support quota systems, he said, though it may only be a matter of time.

India’s fishing success over the past few decades has largely resulted from natural advantages like fish diversity and productive tropical waters, Mohamed added.

In spite of poor management and regulation, it has been chugging along with growth rates,” he said. “But that will have to change for continued, sustainable growth.”

Fishing supports as many as four million people, according to government estimates, including one million active fishers. Image by Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar.
Fishing supports as many as four million people, according to government estimates, including one million active fishers. Image by Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar.

Banner image: Fishers roll out a red purse-seine net in Mangalore, a major fishing harbor in southwest India. Some of the country’s coastal states are beginning to regulate purse seine fishing boats, especially the size of the net mesh to ensure juvenile fish don’t get caught. Image by Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar.

Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai, India. She writes frequently on environment and development. Tweets @winterapples.

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