The trap of the empty net


Is this the end of fish? Are fishermen the villains or the saviours? In a follow-up to Tehelka’s cover story on the coastal crisis, Rohini Rohini MohanMohan reports on what the solutions might be

Turf wars As fish resources decline, fishermen in Kerala cut each other’s nets, steal rival catch and fish illegally during monsoon bans
Photo: B Sumesh

BETWEEN TWO stretches of beach in Kollam, Kerala, riot police have been stationed for the past five years. Complete with a van, a couple of tents, a trunk full of guns and batons, they are tasked with breaking up clashes that regularly erupt between four fishing villages that share the beaches.

“The clashes are not about religious rivalry,” says A Andrews, 70, a local resident. “It’s about fish. We’re fighting and killing each other over the last patches of sea that have fish left to catch.” Fifteen men from these villages died last year in territorial battles, three of them still in their teens.

Andrews was one of the earliest graduates in Fort Kollam, but he was always a fisherman first. He fished in a traditional canoe — wooden at first, and then a fibreglass one fitted with a motor — going to sea every few days, and returning with his net laden with fish and shrimp. That has changed in the past 10 years. “I used to think there will always be fish to catch,” he says, “But in my own lifetime, I have seen people come back empty-handed.”

Andrews has written three acclaimed Malayalam books that trace the history of fishing communities in Kollam, home to the largest shrimp fishing and exporting industry in India. He documents how Kerala’s most valuable species — mathi (oil sardine), karimeen (pearlspot), aila (mackerel) and kanava (squid) — have fallen in number. More noticeably, the size of adult fish has reduced steadily.

“Kollam was known for parava (false trevally). Just 10 years ago, it was 15 inches long and 3 inches wide,” says Andrews, motioning with his hands. “Today, it is 3.5 inches long and one inch wide.” From 16 types of kora (salmon) 20 years ago, only 5-6 types remain. The velutha avoli (white pomfret) has all but disappeared.

As fish resources decline, turf wars have been breaking out across Kerala’s coastline. Fishermen cut each other’s nets, steal rival catch and fish illegally during monsoon bans. “The community of 25 lakh fishermen stays afloat largely because the fish price is high today,” says Andrews. “But if we treat the sea and coast the way we do now, we’re going to be fished out soon.”

Kollam’s fish battles are a symptom of a phenomenon that afflicts India’s 7,500- km coastline. There is a palpable sense of panic about depleting fish catch and a disturbing resignation about having to go deeper into illegal, foreign or dangerous seas. Fishing today is more aggressive than ever, with bigger vessels, more powerful engines and giant nets with tiny meshes that literally sweep the seabed clean.

The first-ever Marine Census done by Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute in 2010 analysed data collected about 10 groups of “large commercially important marine animals like reef fish, tuna, and sharks”. It found that the species have declined nearly 90 percent from their historical baselines and are already at a point where they cannot replenish their numbers without active human conservation.

OVERFISHING IS a term often used by bureaucrats and politicians in coastal states. “It is a simple way of putting the blame on the man at sea, the fisherman,” says Bengaluru- based marine researcher Aarthi Sridhar. “But all government bodies encourage it, because after all, more fish catch means more revenue.”

It is to increase fish export income that the Central government introduced trawlers in 1954 under the Indo-Norwegian Project. From 1962 to 1982, nearly all the investments made by the government in fishing were in trawlers and the mechanised sector. “Traditional fishing from the shore or in shallow waters received only minimal attention, although this is what employs 70 percent of our fishing community,” says Sridhar.

To modernise traditional fishermen, the government supplied about 1,200 trawlers at heavily subsidised loans. But when fishermen did not catch enough to repay loans, the trawlers ended up in the hands of a new tribe of boat owners: businessmen from outside the fishing community. The export potential of shrimp attracted entrepreneurs and banks to the fisheries sector. The explosion in trawling began the overexploitation of marine wealth and had alarming consequences on the traditional sector. A 2010 Food and Agriculture Organisation study identified about 13 species that are no longer commonly found in the Palk Bay area.

‘Our clashes are not over religion. We’re killing each other over the last patches of sea that have fish left to catch,’ says A Andrews

Fisheries modernisation programmes have spawned a capital-intensive fishing sector that gives scant or delayed attention to small-scale fishermen. It has created a battleground of sorts since the 1960s. As annual catch per fisherman dropped in the ’80s to 1.6 tonnes from 3.5 tonnes in the ’60s, traditional fishers fought for a ban on trawlers in the monsoon, which is the breeding season for species like shrimp.

But the ban has not been enough. Mechanised fishing continues to cause irreparable damage. For instance, for every kg of shrimp, a trawler captures approximately 10 kg of bycatch — fish that were not targeted, but caught incidentally. They could range from tiny anchovies to large sharks, larvae to juveniles, eggs, or gastropods. “This is the marine equivalent of clear felling forests,” explains marine ecologist Aaron Lobo. “It is called fishing down the food web, a signature of overexploitation.”

Lobo says that until a decade ago, most bycatch was dumped back into the sea. Soon, some of it found its way into the local market, sold to small buyers or consumed by the fishermen themselves. The toxic or less valuable catch would still be thrown away, as “trash fish”. Incredibly, in the past 10 years, with fuel prices rising and the numbers of lucrative target fish plummeting, Lobo says bycatch of even the lowest quality is not discarded anymore.

THERE IS no better evidence of this new, disastrous turn in the fisheries sector than the destination of trucks that leave the Nagapattinam harbour every morning. Laden with tonnes of dried bycatch, they travel 200 km to Namakkal and to Chittoor in Andhra Pradesh — both poultry capitals of south India. The fish delivered here will soon become chickenfeed. Lobo’s research shows that the proportion of income from bycatch sold this way, is often more than that from the commercial catch.

“When getting shrimp, sardines or pomfret is almost a matter of lottery today, it’s trash fish and bycatch that are becoming the predictable source of income for fishermen,” says Lobo.

Scientists, marine experts and even politicians around the world have certified that the key to marine conservation is in moving away from big vessels, and in embracing the sustainable nature of traditional fishing. “It doesn’t mean going back to the dark ages,” says marine policy adviser V Vivekanandan. “We need technology but one that doesn’t cause unemployment or empty our seas.”

HOWEVER, THERE are forces today in coastal management that are pushing India in the opposite direction. As the coast becomes the newest development zone, SEZs, power plants and resorts are laying siege to the seas and seafront land. “As beaches erode and become inaccessible, and most of the ports on our coastline edge out small-scale fishing harbours, in the next 5-10 years, we will kill small-scale fishing,” warns researcher Sudarshan Rodriguez.

The Centre and state governments have also sanctioned a total of 213 ports, all of which dredge sand, build barrages, seawalls and tripods. They cause severe erosion (Refer toA Storm Foretold, 26 November), and have eaten away large sections of recreational and fishing beaches. Almost 40 percent of Odisha’s beaches and 83 percent of Karnataka’s have been eroded by such coastal development.

The combination of a decline in fish stock, the eagerness for greater fisheries production and the focus on coasts as the new site of economic growth, has been deadly. It has, more often than not, put more trawlers in the seas, pushed some marine species dangerously close to extinction, unemployed thousands of smallscale fishermen and degraded our coasts.

If environmental and social impacts are genuinely considered, not simply as legal barriers but as components of coastal management, the new model of coastal development could work. But amidst the impatience for growth, perhaps the solution lies in taking a step back to rethink, to have the close to 10 ministries overseeing fishing and the coast talk to each other, and to the fisherfolk. Perhaps the inspiration lies in Andrews’ deceptively simple desire: Of leaving behind a good number of fat, large salmon for his children.


Q&A – GK Vasan, Shipping Minister

‘India has a long coast. More ports are good’

SHIPPING MINISTER GK Vasan responds to sections about ecological damage caused by excessive port development in Rohini mohan’s cover story A Storm Foretold. He defends ports as inevitable to growth, but plans a new law that will bring more discipline.

GK Vasan
GK Vasan, Shipping Minister
Photo: Tarun Sehrawat

Excerpts From An Interview

Why doesn’t your ministry have reliable data on how many minor ports are there in India?
The ministry is aware of 176 minor ports; these are under state governments, mostly coming up under public-private partnership. Apart from that, 12 major ports are under the Union shipping ministry. There could be more in the pipeline that we don’t know about.

Independent studies say there are 213 ports in all. Why do we need a port every 28 km?
India has a 7,500-km coastline and more ports are good. States are developing ports based on need, and they are minor only.

The minor-major distinction is about jurisdiction. But you use the word ‘minor’ as if the ports are small, when many are as large as major ports. Isn’t this misleading?
Only a few minor ports are bigger than the 12 major ports. Actually, we realised the term ‘minor’ is misleading, so we now say non-major. The Indian Ports Act is more than a century old. We need a new law, which we have drafted. Many state governments have expressed strong views about some of the clauses, but change needs to happen.

What kind of change?
As of today, we don’t govern numbers and location — it’s open for state governments. It’s desirable that these are better coordinated. The new port law should bring in more discipline, but we still cannot stop states from sanctioning ports.

States clearly see private (captive) ports as default SEZs.
Many have power plants and factories. There is nothing wrong if it justifies the cargo. Our cargo capacity is 1,094 million tonnes. By 2020, we should triple that amount, and minor ports should take 40 percent of the burden.

Who will monitor this rip-roaring growth? There are ecological damage and displacement.
We have taken marine accidents seriously. We will impose restrictions on ships older than 25 years, and claim compensation for accidents. Port developers are aggrieved by the delays and rigidities in the environment clearances. They can build only after environmental impact assessments. If they still violate it, that’s up to the environment ministry to monitor.

Rohini Mohan is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.




Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Comment moderation is enabled. Your comment may take some time to appear.