On 22 March 2015 as many as 54 Indian fishermen were reported to have been arrested by the Sri Lankan Navy for allegedly poaching in island’s waters off the coast of Kankesanturai and Talaimannar in the north. (Source: Press Trust of India)

Just over a month earlier, on 15 February 2015, yet another report by PTI talked of the release by Pakistan of 172 Indian fishermen, who had been held at the Malir and Landhi District Jail in Karachi for allegedly violating territorial waters in the Arabian Sea. The release came as a goodwill gesture, two days after the Prime Ministers of the two countries decided to resume high-level contacts.

Fish do not bother about the arbitrary boundaries laid down by man; poor fishermen follow the fish only to be caught in the net of geopolitics. News such as the above has ceased to make front-page headlines in our newspapers because of the frequency at which these events occur. However, it can be noticed how sacrosanct the invisible border lines on the blue waters are, for every nation, even when it comes to fish-catches of a few hundred kilograms.

It is in this context that the policy of throwing open the Indian waters to foreign trawlers assumes importance. Even though this was a process that started side by side with the liberalisation of the Indian economy, the report submitted by an Expert Committee chaired by Dr B Meenakumari, Dy Director General, Fisheries, ICAR has the potential to drastically alter the marine fisheries scenario of the country.

The Munambam fishing harbour in Kerala. Pic: P N Vijayakumar

The report

The Committee was appointed in August 2013 with eight members and submitted its report in August 2014. The tasks assigned to the Committee were to:

(i) Review the Comprehensive Marine Fishing Policy, 2004 (CMPF 2004) and to suggest a new policy;

(ii) Review the existing guidelines for deep sea fishing in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ;

(iii) Suggest full exploitation of catch potential in the EEZ and international waters;

(iv) Examine the compliance status of regional and global requirements of management and regulation of marine fisheries.

The Committee’s recommendations, however, have come under fire even before the government has accepted them. Fish-workers’ unions across the country are on agitation mode, slamming the recommendations as a sell-out. Strangely enough, the government has at the same time come out with a couple of orders based on the contents of the report.

The Committee has observed that production in the Indian waters up to a depth of 200 metres has petered out and that the fishing folk are now abandoning near-shore fishing, preferring to go out to the depths of 200m and beyond. It adds, however, that fishing in the depths of 200 to 500 m is detrimental to the sustainability of fish and hence the recommendation is to demarcate it as a buffer zone, where no fishing is allowed.

The report says that small fishing boats (varying in length from 15m to 20 m) have started venturing into this area and this should not be allowed. What this implies is that there are no catches if you fish in waters up to a depth of 200m and you should also not fish in between 200m and 500m. So where do the smaller fishermen go for fishing? No wonder the fisherfolk are up in arms.

‘This zone (between 200m and 500m) has several pockets having rich resources of deep sea shrimps and lobsters’, says Dr.V.N.Sanjeevan, former Director, Centre for Marine Living Resources & Ecology (CMLRE), Kochi. ‘The motive behind this (the declaration as Buffer Zone), may be to support the DSFVs ( Deep Sea Fishing Vessels) to loot the deep sea shrimp and lobsters by effectively preventing entry of traditional fishery sector to this zone,’ he continues.

Another important recommendation in the report is to allow foreign and joint venture companies to fish in Indian territorial waters. The net result of this would be the issue of new licences to as many as 270 foreign trawlers. These trawlers use nets which are as long as 65 to 90 kilometres and are equipped with the most modern solar fish finders, sensors and possess satellite technology.

In fact, the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) has already invited companies (public notice numbered 21002/12/11, dated 28 Nov 2014) to apply for permission to fish in the EEZ. It has also been made clear that it could be in joint ventures with foreign companies.

‘Overexploitation and climate change has severely affected 13 of the 15 fishing grounds in the world,’ says T J Anjelos, Kerala state president of the Fish Workers Federation (AITUC). ‘The two comparatively better off ones are in the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal,’ he continues. ‘No wonder, the foreign monopolies are striking a bargain and no wonder again that our rulers are falling for it.’

Going soft on the big fish, metaphorically!

A crucial recommendation which strikes a chord in the mind of the most ordinary fish worker is regarding the trawling ban during June-July which is an annual feature in the Indian shores. The trawling ban is intended for protecting the spawning species and has always evoked mixed reaction from the traditional and mechanised sectors. The expert committee now wants to exempt deep sea vessels from the ban as the ban period does not coincide with the spawning season of tuna.

‘Even the most sophisticated technology cannot distinguish between tuna and other smaller varieties when it comes to fish getting trapped in the net,’ says Joseph a fishing boat worker and a victim of the monsoon trawling ban every year. ‘How can you allow these giant ships to sweep the ocean bed and take away every little living thing in the sea while we people who depend on the sea for our livelihood, starve?’ he asks.

A busy day at Munambam. Pic: P N Vijayakumar

What do these trawlers generally do with the lot they catch? They take away only the ‘precious parts’ of the big fish they net. Fins only, if it is a shark. The fins are cut and the shark is thrown back into the sea and it becomes easy prey to its predators because it cannot defend itself or become inactive and die. Similar is the fate of any other big fish; only the precious parts are used.

Tons of small fish that get caught are dumped back into the ocean and they rot in the sea whereas, if any of these were to land in any of the Indian fishing harbours, it would have had its own use and money value, at least as fish meal. Zero wastage had always been a remarkable feature of Indian fishing, perhaps as in any other third world country. Unfortunately this is being overturned in the deep waters.

Other points of concern

There are also recommendations in the report to make it compulsory to employ a percentage of foreign crew in DSFVs (as Indian fishermen do not have the technical competency) and to pay them minimum wages of $25,000 per season. Fish workers and their trade union leaders view this as an affront to the Indian fishermen and claim that they have the necessary expertise and experience and only short training is required.

One of the main points of resentment is that the major stake holders, the traditional fishermen, have not been made a party to the discussions prior to the finalisation of the report, and had never even been consulted.

Asked about this, Dr B Meenakumari told India Together over phone that the functioning of the Committee was coordinated by the ministry and hence the question has to be put to them. “Anyway, I was concerned with deep sea fishing and the traditional fishermen have nothing to do with deep sea fishing,” is what she had to say. This comment in itself is reflective of the lack of an all-inclusive and comprehensive vision on the part of the Committee and its chairperson.

“The Expert Committee with no fishery environmentalist, fishery economist, oceanographer, statistician and legal expert among its members was perhaps compelled to adopt an over-simplistic approach in framing the policy document,” says Dr V N Sanjeevan.

Indian fisher folk are in turmoil. Though it has got nothing to do with the Meenakumari Committee, the recent government directive that all Indian fishermen operating in the outer seas must obtain passports before June 1 has only added fuel to the fire: a passport for working in India?