|Biodiversity in the Western Ghats: An Information Kit (IIRR, 1994, 224 p.)|
More than 150,000 non-mechanized, traditional fishing boats operate in the narrow coastal belt around India. Together, they land nearly two-thirds of the country's marine fish production.
Despite the importance of such fisheries in many developing countries, policies have been slanted against the interests of the small-scale fisherfolk. These people have not been provided adequate protection from mechanized operators and big business interests.
Unfortunately, trends point to a grim future: it may be difficult to sustain even the existing fish catch, the livelihood of poorer fisherfolk is steadily threatened, and fishing techniques used often harm biodiversity and coastal habitats.
Coastal Kerala is home to fishing communities who have handed down their occupation from generation to generation. The waters they depend on are one of the world's richest prawn grounds. Spurred on by high international demand for prawns, powerful capitalists appeared on the export scene. These entrepreneurs use efficient catching techniques and improved processing methods. These-changes have spread beyond Kerala and have had a major impact on marine fisheries in India.
Bottom trawling for prawns, highly destructive of all marine life, has been carried out in the inshore zone, with scant regard to the livelihood of traditional fisherfolk. This trawling sometimes does not even stop during the monsoon months, the breeding period for several types of fish.
Purse-seining for oil sardines and mackerel can also severely deplete populations of these species. The result is that several inshore areas are showing signs of being overfished. The overall catch is declining, fish of smaller size are being caught, and some varieties of fish have become locally extinct or are in danger of this.
"Artisanal fisheries are the largest single supplier of animal protein for several hundred million people in developing countries. In the majority of tropical Asian countries, for example, artisanal fisheries contribute more than 50 % of the annual protein intake."-World Resources Institute.
Small-sector coastal fisheries along the Kerala coast
"It is particularly important to protect and enhance small-scale fisheries... These are characterized by high labour involvement, low capital investment, low levels of mechanization and often the use of passive fishing methods. "-Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
While fish exports have reached high levels, the per capita availability of fish in coastal villages, where it is the staple protein for the masses, is declining.
Smaller fish fetch low prices and provide protein for the masses. But spiralling world market prices for fish meal mean that these small fish, which deep sea boats catch in large quantities, will be diverted to supply the fish meal demand. When the choice is between fish meal to earn foreign exchange and protein for the masses, the choice for the entrepreneur is obvious.
Increases in the number of coastal fisherfolk, moderate rises in their economic needs and increased equipment to enable them to meet those needs, will mean that fishing pressure in coastal areas will grow. There is a need to monitor coastal areas carefully and take action in case of threatened overfishing. This may ensure that even at the risk of some short-term losses, the longer term sustainable yield will not suffer.
We have to learn from the mistakes of the past. We must bring fisheries back to the objectives of sustainable development, emphasizing the livelihood and nutrition of the poorer groups in our society.
New fishing methods
During the last two decades almost all fisherfolk have shifted from cotton to nylon fishing nets. The number of nets and other tackle has increased significantly.
Notwithstanding the threat of overfishing by existing fisherfolk, a large number of new operators have been encouraged to fish in the coastal waters. These new operators were allowed to use highly mechanized, destructive fishing methods such as trawling (scraping the sea bottom with a bell-shaped net to catch demersal fish) and purse-seining (quickly encircling whole shoals of pelagic fish).
In Kerala, each fisher had an average of 16 hectares of coastal commons to fish in 1961. By 1985, this decreased to 9 hectares (calculations by John Kurien and T. R. Thankappen Achari).
Adapted and compiled from Crisis in India's fisheries by Bharat Dogra, Navdanya (1993)