Troubled waters

Print edition : September 20, 2013

at Sakthikulangara, Kollam, preparing to go to sea after the 47-day trawling ban ended on July 31. Photo: C.SURESH KUMAR

A day before the ban took effect last year, a bounty of prawns at the Thoppumpady fishing harbour in Kochi. The basic assumption behind the monsoon trawl ban is that it offers marine organisms a respite when they most need it, during their peak spawning period. Photo: H. Vibhu

Twenty-five years of monsoon trawl ban has not helped nurse Kerala’s coastal fishery back to good health. A combination of regulatory measures could be the solution.

JUST when it seemed that the quarter-century-old ban on trawl fishing during the south-west monsoon “spawning season” may have helped restore Kerala’s coastal fishery to reasonable health, a State government-appointed committee of scientists and officials came out with a report saying that the evidence of it is, at best, fuzzy.

The committee appointed “to evaluate fish wealth and the impact of the trawl ban along the Kerala coast” has reported that the ban helped increase the yield and the value of the catch for nine years immediately after it was introduced in 1988, but the benefits began to disappear thereafter. Moreover, after the year 2000, “the growth rates have turned negative”, and there has been a decline in both yield and value in the mechanised sector.

The situation is more or less the same in other coastal fisheries in India.

Volatile conflict

Kerala was the first State to introduce a ban on monsoon trawling in coastal waters following a volatile conflict between the traditional and mechanised fishing lobbies in the State.

The roots of the conflict between “those who depended on fishing as a livelihood” and “those who came into fishing purely for high profits”, however, lay in Kerala’s early attempts to modernise its fisheries under an Indo-Norwegian project implemented in the early 1950s.

The introduction of trawlers as part of the project saw hundreds of them reaching the hands of outsiders, traders and other businessmen, instead of the traditional fisherfolk for whom they were originally meant to be distributed through cooperatives.

Soon, the number of such trawler businessmen increased, lured as they were mainly by the profits in the international shrimp market.

By the early 1970s, the battle lines were clearly drawn. The inshore waters were the only source of livelihood for the artisanal fisherfolk; but that was also where shrimps, sought by the trawlers, were found in plenty. Trawling meant the scraping of the bottom of the sea, or towing the trawl net above the bottom zone—a highly destructive process of fishing, especially during the monsoon, when many species of fish, prawns and other marine creatures would gather there for the nutrients brought by the floods, and for spawning.

The extensive use of trawls in the inshore waters therefore led to the devastation of habitats, the destruction of eggs and the young of important bottom-dwelling varieties of fish, a sharp decline in catches for the artisanal fisherfolk and, reportedly, the “disappearance” of many important native species.

The conflict that ensued between the artisanal and mechanised fishing sectors saw many flare-ups, which led to the destruction of boats, burning of trawlers and hunger strikes; the formation of the first independent trade union of traditional fisherfolk in India; an outpouring of support for the artisanal fishermen from external agencies, including the Catholic Church; a trend towards large-scale motorisation and acquisition of better fishing equipment in the traditional sector; and, no doubt, prolonged court cases.

At stake on one side were the livelihoods of poor fishermen and their need to keep the fishery healthy and sustainable. On the other was the unconcerned greed of the trawler owners for profits. Finally, in 1988, with pressure mounting and when it became politically inconvenient and dangerous to ignore the tension any longer, the State government accepted the recommendation for a ban on trawling in the monsoon months of July and August.

The ban, it was argued, would prevent destructive harvesting and overfishing, allow fish stocks to rebuild and lead to sustainable fishing. It also had a short-term aim: of appeasing the artisanal agitators.

Milestone in fishery management

It was hailed as a milestone in fishery management in India and immediately led to several coastal States, such as Goa, Karnataka and Maharashtra, following the example. By 2000, all coastal States had imposed such a ban as a fishery management strategy, even though there are differences in the duration, time of year when it is imposed, and the type of craft exempted from it.

But 25 years after the imposition of the ban, which became a yearly feature in Kerala’s coastal waters, and despite several expert committees advocating its continuation as a conservation measure, doubts about its efficacy to ensure long-term sustainability and enhancement of fish stocks on its own are being raised.

But such seasonal fishing holiday is the only regulatory measure that is being diligently implemented in India. Other much-needed regulatory instruments such as licensing of craft; mesh size (of nets used) regulation; catch declaration; ceiling on the number and efficiency of fishing craft; and monitoring, control and surveillance of fishing vessels remain poorly implemented.

Fishery in Kerala is, perhaps, a good example. A result of the turmoil over the early proliferation of trawlers in the State was the large-scale motorisation of traditional fishing craft, which started from the mid-1980s, and through which the artisanal sector extended its fishing fields. The period also saw the introduction of more powerful engines in the vessels, a growing trend towards the use of bigger, more potent and destructive fishing gear, which required ever larger vessels and larger crew.

High-power, imported engines became the norm in the mechanised sector too, where boat size, gear efficiency, engine power and sea endurance went up as competition increased. For example, huge ring seine nets that came into vogue in both sectors in the late 1980s today account for a major share of the fish landings, followed by trawls. Other destructive gears are also widely in use.

Many studies have shown that the increase in catch along the Indian coast cannot be taken as a sign of a healthy fishery but is essentially a result of the increase in the efficiency of craft and gear and the extension of fishing to offshore regions in the last two decades.

But, fishing, as such, remains more or less unregulated. The problem, as indicated in a recent Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) report, is that “if access to fisheries resources is restricted, it would affect livelihoods of coastal communities, while if the access is open, the resources will sooner or later decline beyond recovery”.

Impact on marine habitats

What has such an unbridled growth in fishing efficiency done to marine habitats? Importantly, many of the gears used predominantly would scoop up enormous quantities of “by-catch” also along with the commercially valuable varieties. New varieties of fishing gear, especially nets with small mesh sizes, led to the harvesting of juveniles of many fast-growing and high-value species such as shrimps.

A 2010 CMFRI study says that the problem of by-catch and targeted juvenile fishing is increasing all over India. In open access marine fisheries, such non-targeted catches are highly detrimental as they would only “reduce future yield and subsequent recruitment to the fishery”. Research reports have warned that such focussed fishing effort is leading to the depletion or collapse of fish stocks and may already be raising the threat of species loss in some cases.

The committee reports several species as having a declining status on the Kerala coast, among them whitefish ( Lactarius lactarius), silver pomfret ( Pampus argenteus) and catfish ( Arius sp.).

The case of the catfish, once abundant along the Malabar coast, is illustrative and has been reported in Fisheries Policy Brief-2, brought out by the CMFRI. The catfish is classified as a “collapsed” (over 90 per cent decline over baseline stock) fish stock in both Kerala and Karnataka. This large fish is exceptionally slow-growing and has low fertility; the males incubate eggs in their mouth. “However, when schools of catfishes are caught by purse seines and ring seines, the males spit out the large eggs in order to save them, but, because of the small mesh size of the seines, the eggs are also caught. One study in 1980 estimated the total number of eggs destroyed by purse seines in Mangalore in one month as 25 million. Another study (2008) also reported that males are more vulnerable to such fishing, resulting in disproportionate sex ratios in the population. Although catfishes have been exploited for ages from the south-west coast of India, it is most likely that the advent of large-scale exploitation of eggs by seines has driven the stock to a collapsed status.”

Similarly, the report states that the silver pomfret stock, a fish high in demand locally and internationally, is already in a depleted state in Kerala. It feeds on zooplankton and faces no dearth of food in the coastal seas. But “it has probably reached the current status due to excessive fishing pressure and use of small (below legal limits) codend mesh in trawls”.

Excessive capture of juveniles, extreme fishing and small mesh size of trawls have also been reported as being responsible for the depleted status of another demersal (bottom-dwelling) fish, L. lactarius.

The expert committee too has drawn attention to the harmful practice found all along the Kerala coast of harvesting egg-laying cuttlefish by building artificial structures called fish aggregating devices (FADs). The harvesting of cuttlefish using FADs is substantial, and the catch is of the order of several thousand tonnes a year.

The report warns, quoting studies by the CMFRI, that more than 99 per cent of one variety of cuttlefish, known as the “pharaoh cuttlefish”, is thus caught in the “ripe condition”, before they have a chance to lay their eggs. Since some of these FADs are placed in trawling grounds, sometimes they are also scooped up by the trawls, resulting in the loss of thousands of unhatched eggs. “This is a double impact leading to severe recruitment overfishing and places extreme stress on the pharaoh cuttlefish population.”

The basic assumption behind the monsoon trawl ban in Kerala is that it offers marine organisms a respite when they most need it, during their peak spawning period. Fisheries scientists have, however, been saying that the spawning period could not be considered the sole criterion for the period or duration of the ban as most tropical fishes spawn throughout the year, and spawning peaks are during different months for different species.

The committee has now recommended that the yearly trawl ban be extended from 47 days to 75 days and yet another ban for 60 days be introduced on ring seine fishing, which targets surface-dwelling (pelagic) resources during their peak spawning period of April-May. Among its other major recommendations are provision of fishing licence based on the gear used (instead of an all-encompassing licence) and with a limited validity of two years; restrictions on engine power based on the size of the vessel; and, enforcement of optimum mesh sizes and dimensions for all commonly used fishing gear.

It ought to be possible to nurse Kerala’s fisheries back to good health. But mysteries abound, and understanding of marine systems and fish stocks is incomplete. As migration of some local fish species to warmer waters, harmful algal blooms, bleaching of coral reefs, and so on may suggest, climate change has the potential to transform entire ecosystems in radical ways. After so many years, there are conflicting views even on whether the seasonal fishing bans have helped in the long-term sustainability of fish stocks.

Perhaps such bans work well only with the many other measures that should necessarily go with them.

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