In a sea of a thousand fishing nets, hope floats. That’s what helps gill netters and trawl fishermen sail out day after day. A few factors skew the balance in favour of the larger, more technologically savvy boats. Industrial fisheries are gradually pushing small-scale fishermen to the edge. The larger the vessel, the higher is its impact on the social and ecological fabric of the coast. While these fishermen have long been at loggerheads with trawl and purse-net fishermen, another type of fisherman has insidiously expanded into Indian waters.
Foreign vessels have been fishing illegally in Indian seas for several years. There have been reports of small artisanal vessels originating in Myanmar or Thailand ‘poaching’ fish from near the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. While these random acts of desperation by poor fishermen from neighbouring countries do not constitute a serious threat, the entry of huge, factory-style foreign fish processing ships deserve attention. These ships stay away from the watchful eyes of Indian fishermen who prefer to fish close to the shore. Recently, some Kerala-based fishermen voiced their concern over the entry of foreign fishing vessels into Indian waters. They claim that 91 foreign fishing vessels have been permitted entry. This is not a new phenomenon, but a resurgence of an old problem.
Deep-sea fishing by foreign vessels became notorious in India in the late-80s and early-90s when Father Thomas Kocherry famously led a crusade against the plunder. Chronicled in a documentary by Anand Patwardhan, fisherfolk from across India, both artisanal and trawl workers, came together to protest the foreign extraction of fish. The economics and the ecology of allowing foreign vessels are very dodgy, with financiers who support deep-sea fishing admitting that the advantages to the foreign vessel outweigh the benefits to India. The Indian government was eventually forced to accept the Murari committee’s recommendation against foreign fishing vessels within the Indian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). In 2002, the government regulated deep-sea fishing. It requires vessels to be over 20 metres in length, plying over 12 nautical miles from the shore and having a Letter of Permit (LoP) from the agriculture ministry. To correct the errors made in the 90s, only vessels owned totally or in partnership with Indian nationals were allowed to harvest Indian waters.
The UPA government has made a silent reversal of that nearly 20-year-old decision by turning a blind eye to fake registration papers. While the National Fishworkers Forum has raised this issue repeatedly, nothing has come of it except the sum of R8,00,000 in the form of a one-time fishing licence fee to the government.
When fishermen are already talking of severe species declines, and science is showing that fishing in Indian waters is already exceeding capacity, any expectation of future seafood can only arise from our deep seas. That the government is willing to endanger the country’s future food security for such a paltry sum should be the concern not only of the fishermen, but of everyone. If, as Emily Dickinson put it, hope is the thing with feathers, the bird of the sea is almost well plucked.
Divya Karnad is a marine ecologist
The views expressed by the author are personal