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Fishing for Resources: Indian Fisheries in Danger

Ecological and environmental parameters play a primary role in the formation of fish biomass. Periodic changes in such natural phenomena as ocean currents, water temperature and oxygen layers affect the ecological and environmental balance. But when humans intervene with super-efficient technology, the push the aquatic population beyond its sustainable limits. In addition, marine ecological pollution, caused by direct or indirect dumping of excessive sewage, industrial effluents and toxic materials into the rivers and coastal sea, also deleteriously affects aquatic resources. With the development of science and technology, the influences of the last two parameters have grown the world over, particularly in Third World countries, which lack effective controls.

Environmental degradation poses a host of problems, both short and long term and of local or general interest. Traditional artisanal fisherpeople in the southwest coastal province of Kerala, India, have been fighting a relentless battle for more than a decade against mechanized fishing vessels such as trawlers and purse seiners. The fisherfolk's livelihood is being directly threatened by these rival and powerful fishing methods. Only in the last few years have fisherfolk begun to articulate the problem of ecological damage caused by inshore mechanized fishing: overfishing and destruction of fish breeding locations on the sea bed, leading to severe depletion of marine stocks.

Level of Resource Exploitation

The inshore resource potential within the Exclusive Economic Zone is presently exploited up to 75 percent, leaving scope for marginal improvement in overall fish production from the inshore sea. However, fisheries development has not been uniform in all the states of the Indian union. Kerala, aided and abetted by the Indo-Norwegian Project and the state government, took an early lead in the development of mechanized fishing, particularly shrimp trawling. Karnataka Province, north of Kerala, forged ahead in the introduction of purse seiners. In 1975 there were 2,105 mechanized boats in Kerala and 1,235 boats in Karnataka; this number increased to 3,038 and 2,005, respectively, in 1980. The progress in mechanization and level of fish production appear in Table 1.

The data in Table I show that provinces such as Kerala, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu more or less fully exploit their maximum sustainable yield (MSY). In Kerala, by 1971-1975 the state exceeded its potential MSY. The increase in the number of mechanized boats during 1976-1980 did not have any impact on aggregate production. On the other hand, production only declined. Although it reached the lowest ebb in 1981, it slowly picked up in 1984. But in 1985, according to the State Department of Fisheries, production once again slumped. Obviously, marine fish production in Kerala has been lagging behind since the mid-1970s.

Although Maharashtra had exceeded its production over the MSY in 1971-1975, its MSY continued to increase in 1976-1980 unlike in Kerala. This phenomenon is partly explained by the fact that the neighboring provinces of Gujarat and Karnataka had been exploiting only half of their advantage of Maharashtra. But production declined in 1981-1984.

Impact of Mechanization versus Indigenous Techniques

Shrimp trawling and purse seining have resulted in overfishing and resource depletion. In Kerala and Karnataka, the fishermen and the environmentalists were never concerned about resources so long as fishing techniques remained passive and fish production stood much below the sustainable mark.

The people of Kerala Province have been fishing the inshore waters for thousands of years. They have created fishing methods, craft and gear suited to their environment and to the variety of fish available at different locations. Their fishing nets have different mesh sizes to suit different species of fish; mechanized vessels, on the other hand, use a single net, which traps fish indiscriminately, including juveniles and fish eggs. The artisanal fishing methods are not only well tuned to the environment but also ensure minimum damage to the marine stock. Artisanal fishing in Kerala has never been a purely subsistence activity; the fisherfolk have traditionally sold their fish to inland areas and also though traders to various other parts of the country and abroad.

The fishermen became aware of the ecological consequences of mechanized fishing only when they found that they were squared out of their share of the fish catches. In the 1970s, their share of fish production declined about 50 percent (CMFRI data).

Although scientists agree that economic overfishing exists, they do not want to admit that biological overfishing of some exists as well. From the fact that the production catch per unit effort and the size of prawns have all fallen since the mid-1970s in Kerala, Karnataka and Goa provinces, one could rightly conclude that the prawn resources In the southwest coast of India are dwindling due to overfishing. These falling tendencies suggest biological overfishing more than economic overfishing. Even with a low catch, the operations could be economic if the power was high enough to cover the costs and yield a profit margin. But if biological overfishing of prawns continues, it will not only lead to economic overfishing but to an ecological catastrophe from which we will not easily recover.

Shrimp trawling in general has beer over-capitalized. According to the Kalavar Committee Report (1985), the optimal number of trawling boats to catch prawn resources beyond the 10-fathom range for Kerala is 1,145, suggesting that about 56 percent of the trawling boats were not required to bring in the same quantity of fish. What is true of Kerala is equally applicable to Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra. Fisheries development investments have been wasted due to a lack of proper resource appraisal and planning. The private sector has been largely responsible for this economic predicament.

In a bid to improve the technology to increase the pelagic catches of oil sardine and mackerel in India, a large number of purse seiners have been introduced along the southwest coast of India since the mid-1970s. The proponents of purse seine technology claimed that the purse seines would bring a significant increase in the catches of oil sardine and mackerel fisheries and improve the economy of the country. But what has really happened? The data in Table 2 shed some light on the real situation.

In Kerala, purse seines did not visibly impact the overall production of oil sardine and mackerel. Despite the fact that 54 purse seiners have been operating in Kerala, the production of oil sardine and mackerel declined heavily under the purse seining period. In Karnataka, the average annual production of oil sardine increased 26 percent between the two periods; mackerel, however, declined by 9 percent over the period. Even without the large feet of nearly 400 purse seiners in Karnataka, the artisanal boats with their passive gear could get higher peak catches during the pre-purse seine period, suggesting that the high-cost gear had little impact on production even in Karnataka. The case of Goa mirrors that of Karnataka.

Imagine the magnitude of the investments made in the development of a purse seine fishery in the southwest coast of India. At an average rate of Rs. 600,000 (US $46,154) per purse seiner, the country has invested more than Rs 330 million (US $25 million) for the new technology. But it has failed to bring in any increase in the aggregate landings of oil sardine or mackerel in the southwest coast. Even without this investment, India would not have been worse off. On the other hand, this technology, which competed with the artisanal craft and gear for the same species and space, deprived traditional fishermen of their regular catches. Bulk landings at the centers of purse seining reduced the fish prices as well.

While recommending purse seining as the most efficient technique for catching oil sardine and mackerel the UNDP/FAO Pelagic Project, in Cochin, points to a pertinent issue viz "The question of whether it will adversely affect the traditional artisanal fisheries by reducing the abundance of fish which will eventually create direct clashes on the inshore fishing grounds". The social implications predicted by the UNDP/FAO project have already surfaced over the years. There have been frequent conflicts between artisanal fishermen and the purse seine fishing crews, resulting in both equipment damages and casualties.

Banerji (1973) felt that no relationship existed between the abundance of resources and fishing effort, and stated that the present level of fishing mortality is only half of that associated with maximum sustainable yield. But many changes have occurred since that time in the technology used for exploitation of oil sardine. More than 350 purse seiners have reportedly been pressed into fishing since the mid-1970s; together they could catch India's entire supply of oil sardine, totally displacing the artisanal fisheries.

Lately the emphasis for promoting fishing capabilities has been on motorization of country vessels. The initial success of this idea has prompted both the public and private sectors to go in for motorization in a big way. By 1986, the number of motorized units in the country had reached 23,000 and the trend is still picking up. But nobody seems to be concerned about the resource limits on the impact on the total catches, at least in the provinces where the exploitation of resources has already exceeded the sustainable potential. Technically, the unbridled motorization program would boomerang on the fishermen with uneconomic returns, unproductive investments and mounting indebtedness.

Pollution Compounds Resources Crisis

India's resource crisis has been compounded by an increase in water pollution. High level of pollution exist along vast stretches of the major rivers in the country. Major industrial complexes dump large quantities of untreated sewage, industrial effluents (including DDT wastes) and chemicals into the rivers daily.

According to Natarajan and Ghosh of the CIFRI, "Eight industrial units in Durgapur pump waste that are equivalent to the sewage from a city of one million population. Fish kills are a common occurrence in Summer. The river is leading toward ecological disaster". The effect of estuarine pollution on fishing in the Hooghly River has been the subject of a number of studies by scientists at the CIFRI. A recent study had noted that in the 158 km from Nabadwip to Baj Baj, the average annual yield of fish in the unpolluted and polluted zones was 159 kg and 26 kg per hectare, respectively.

The name of Minamata sends shivers down the spines of environmentalists across the world. In the early fifties, residents of this fishing town in Japan were struck by mercury poisoning caused by eating fish that had been contaminated by the wastes of a nearby factory. By 1972 almost 300 persons were officially listed as its victims. The symptoms of Minamata disease were madness, paralysis, loss of speech and vision, loss of emotional control and crippling of arms and legs.

The presence of mercury and radioactive wastes from the Indian Rare Earths, Ltd. in the effluent discharges to the river. Periyar is cause for serious concern. The toxic chemicals often kill the aquatic flora and fauna.

The problem of marine pollution is steadily growing; all wastes that cannot be stored on land or transformed into gas eventually find their way to the sea. Domestic sewage, industrial wastes, pesticides from agricultural fields drained by canals and rivers, radioactive wastes and oily substances from submarines and oil tankers are the chief pollutants of the sea. Sewage reduces the oxygen content of the water. Similarly, "most of the industrial effluents, especially those from chemical industrial, react with these elements in sea-water and produce new compounds and new environmental conditions".

The stage government in Kerala has built the Thottappalli spillway and the new Thanneermukkom barrage in an effort to control the tidal encroachment of saline water into Kuttanad the rice bowl of Kerala. The farmers here have switched to the high-yielding varieties of rice, and they use pesticides liberally. According to the Department of Agriculture, Kuttanad uses twice the amount of pesticides per ton of rice that the rest of the state consumes. Venugopalan Nair, member secretary of the Kerala State Pollution Control Board, felt that unconfirmed reports of fish kills are attributable to the spraying of pesticides. With the prevention of saline water intrusion achieved by the Thanneermukkom Bund, the prawns no longer grow in this area: however, the African Payal ("the Salvania") flourishes and clogs the waterways. For much of the year, the water remains stagnant, accumulating organic wastes from human habitation, from agriculture and from nature itself, and harboring the pesticides and other chemicals flushed from the fields. Studies show that many of the pesticides and other chemicals can cause cancer or deformed human genes.

The catchment area of the Periyar River has been extensively deforested during the past two decades. The National Remote Sensing Agency, the Center for Earth Science Studies and several other organizations carried out an environmental impact study of the Idukki Project on the river. The studies' main finding was heavy soil erosion in the catchment area. The erosion causes silt to form in the reservoir, thereby reducing its storage capacity. This produces two effects: a drastic reduction in the predicted life of the hydroelectric project, and frequent floods in the river downstream. The consequences of such events would be disastrous. For a few hundred or thousand years, the Periyar would have to be totally abandoned. Fishing also might suffer in a considerably in the ocean nearby. More than half the district would have to look for an alternate source for drinking water.


We are certainly not opposed to technological improvement as a means of augmenting production What we do oppose is the blind faith in modern technology espoused by a new capitalist entrepreneurs to the detriment of the vast majority of fisherpeople and resources. In a country such as India, where the tide of unemployment rages high and capital is scare, technological improvements should be capable of carrying the people with them at optimal investment. As we have seen, neither trawling nor purse seining could assist the vast majority of fisherfolk. Instead, modern technology competes with them, depriving them of their livelihood, depleting resources and creating environmental disequilibrium over the country's fish economy. The country's major river systems are polluted, resulting in large-scale fish kills and destruction of aquatic life. Indiscriminate stake net fishing in the estuaries and construction of salt water barriers further damage the brackish water as well as the marine prawn fishery.

As far as the inshore and inland fisheries are concerned, we must give top priority to the proper conservation and management of fishery resources. the following measures seem relevant for consideration:

1. Property assess the inshore resources and fix an optimum number of craft gear combinations of non-motorized and motorized country craft, mechanized gill netters and a limited number of trawling boats to be carried out as a priority program at the national level.

2. Reserve coastal waters up to a depth of 10 fathoms for the exclusive use of the artisanal units. 3. Completely ban night trawling and stipulate a quota system of catches for each trawling boat.

4. Prohibit purse seining in the inshore waters.

5. Research and development support to the small-scale fisheries.

6. The fishermen, not private capitalists, should own the craft and gear that operate in the inshore waters.

7. Control destructive fishing such as the use of the small-size mesh.

8. Make concerted efforts to provide regular feed-back of relevant data to the fish workers. Develop a consciousness among the workers regarding the nature of resources and the need for management.

9. In developing offshore and deep sea resources, such modern technologies as purse seining, trawling and long lining are indeed imperative. Here again, fishermen with the necessary orientation and training would fit in best as deck hands and skippers. This will usher in new vistas of employment and income to the fishermen.

10. Prevent indiscriminate dumping of toxic materials, industrial effluents and sewage through greater penal action against offenders.

11. Encourage national awareness of the need for preserving the environment. It is laudable that a national awareness campaign has been launched throughout the country, but we have a long way to go before we can achieve our goal.

Table 1

Progress of Mechanization and Marine Fish Production


Within No.of Total No.of Total No.of Total

the mech. catches mech. catches mech. Catches

50m boats (1971- boats (1976- boats (1981-

Province zone(1) (1975)(2) 1975)(3) (1980)(4) 1980) (1985)(5) 1984)(3)

Gujarat 389 - 124 3,413 192 3,488 220

(32) (49) (37)

Maharashtra 153 - 221 4,718 328 4,557 304

(144) (214) (199)

Goa 85 - 27 908 27 250 49

(32) (32) (58)

Karnataka 238 1,232 90 2,004 117 2,967 133

(38) (49) (56)

Kerala 377 2,105 406 3,038 332 3,000 352

(108) (88) (93)

Tamil Nadu 279 - 188 2,920 228 2,934 265

Pondicherry (67) (82) (95)

Andhra Pradesh 199 - 116 580 104 856 134

(58) (52) (67)

Orissa 341 - 26 469 35 636 45

(5) (10) (13)

West Bengal 199 - - 740 12 927 32

(6) (16)

All* 2,260 1,200 19,013 1,331 20,000 1,542

(53) (59) (68)

* Inclusive of Andamans and Lakshwadeep.

(1) P.C. George et al. Souvenir of IFP (1977): Fishery Resources of the India Economic Zone. p. 114. The computation is based on area of the inshore sea and the productivity of the concerned zone.

(2) State Departments of Fisheries, Kerala and Karnataka.

(3) Source of production data: CMFRI and Union Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperation.

(4) CMFRI: MFIS Vol. 30, August 1981, p. 30.

(5) Union Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperation. 14th meeting of the Central Board of Fisheries, 26 September 1986, p.17.

Table 2

Trend in the Production of Oil Sardine and Mackerel

Pre-purse seining Purse seining period

Province 1964-1974 1975-1984

Oil sardine Mackerel Oil sardine Mackerel


1. Annual/average 177,347 26,453 119,183 17,834

2. Maximum 247,048 95,164 154,872 25,917

(1968) (1971) (1983) (1978)


1. Annual/average 33,858 23,120 42,658 21,136

2. Maximum 83,797 64,047 65,614 50,704

(1964) (1971) (1981) (1978)


1. Annual/average 2,491 18,206 3,836 4,110

2. Maximum 3,793 35,258 9,399 7,661

(1972) (1971) (1981-82) (1977)

Total average/annual 213,696 67,779 165,677 43,080

Note: Ref. Period of pre-purse seining period is 1969-1974.

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