Why the Fisheries in India is in Troubled Waters

Experts outline why the new govt scheme for fisheries is not enough.

LF Team

In the last leg of May – two months since India was under a nationwide lockdown, following the outbreak of Covid-19 – the cabinet okayed the Pradhan Mantri Matsya Sampada Yojana (PMMSY) as part of the third tranche of the economic relief fund put together by the Finance Ministry. With an aim to bring about sustainable and responsible development in the fisheries sector, this scheme falls in line with the government’s endeavour towards the Blue Revolution – a phenomenon that has been gaining steady currency in the country since the 1950s and which aims to propagate marine and inland fisheries along with aquaculture. 

The PMMSY comes at a time when the sector is grappling with a number of issues, from skewed demand-supply chains to crumbling infrastructure, exacerbated further by the last-minute lockdown -- bringing fishing and the livelihoods of 16 million at the primary level and almost twice that along the value chain, to a stupendous halt. With a marine coastline of 8,118 km, 3,827 fishing villages, and 1,914 traditional fish landing centers, India is a major consumer and supplier of fish. So, it makes sense for the government to launch a seemingly lofty programme with a record investment of ₹20050 crores – the highest ever – in fisheries.

This scheme aims
at harnessing the full potential of the industry, enhancing fish production and productivity through expansion, intensification, diversification and productive utilisation of land and water and modernising and strengthening the value chain via post-harvest management and quality improvement. However,those impacted directly by the fisheries industry or associated with it as an ancillary don’t seem to think it’s new, innovative or enough.

Ganesh Nakhawa, a seventh-generation Koli, was one of the first to highlight the misery of the fishing community on social media. Nakhawa – better known as the Last Fisherman of Bombay – also, the president of the National Purse Seine Fishermen Welfare Association, thinks that keeping in mind the issues brought forth by the unplanned lockdown, and those that were already plaguing the fishing community, the scheme and stimulus package are as good as a little spit in the sea.

“Even before lockdown, the catch has been poor along the south-west coast,” he shares, explaining how tonnes of fish being thrown back into the sea – after trawlers and boats returned to a shore smack in the middle of the lockdown – is only a part of the problem. “India’s marine fish catch has dropped from 39.38 lakh metric tonnes in 2011-12 to 34.9 lakh tonnes in 2019,” he informs. Even before lockdown, the main constraint in fish utilisation in India stemmed from its weak transportation system, which wasn’t adept enough to connect landing centres to processing, marketing and consumption centres. What’s to be noted here is that the PMMSY makes concessions and arrangements without first catering to the core issues that have long been debasing the fisheries industry.

Besides, the scheme is also counterintuitive, keeping in mind the crucial factor of ecological balance. Marine biologist, Mayuresh Gangal of Know Your Fish, an ocean-friendly initiative that works towards knowledge dissemination, points out that the PMMSY fails to consider the dangers of increasing production of capture fisheries. Instead, it adds to the existing problems. The scheme wishes to increase additional fish production by 70 lakh tonnes over five years, without taking into account a projection by the National Policy on Marine Fisheries (2017), which identified how overfishing could affect the availability of fish. Data also shows no further room for expansion for capture fisheries without over-exploiting the current fish population.

Echoing his concern, marine conservationist Dr Divya Karnad of InSeason Fish, another sustainable seafood initiative points out that the scheme should’ve instead included sustainable measures accounting for issues such as over-capacity (too many fishing boats) leading to overfishing, bottom-trawling (which sweeps the ocean bed and disturbs the ecosystem) and juvenile fishing. All of which could solve the problem of "fishing down the web"- a key indicator of over-extraction in fisheries.

Another major issue with the scheme is its fixation on inland farming, which would’ve otherwise been good if not at the cost of capture fisheries. By 2030, aquaculture in India is expected to yield two-thirds of fish production, according to projections by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Currently, India stands second in fish production, of which 70 per cent is from aquaculture.

 lmage: Shutterstock | In frame: Fresh fish catch from a local fish market in Maharashtra, India
“As fish production provides higher productivity, Indian fisheries’ policy-making has been steadily shifting to fish farming in multiple areas, including hilly regions and north-eastern states. The PMMSY merely iterates and formalises this as part of the new scheme,” explains Siddharth Chakravarty of The Research Collective, a Delhi-based research group in support of marine and inland fish workers’ unions. He points out that despite having “matsya” in its name, the scheme applies to the agrarian sector and not fisheries, and thus becomes more challenging for fisherfolk, who do not own land or other assets. By promoting farming and deep-water fishing, the scheme provides almost no relief to small-time fisherfolks in both marine and inland sectors, and also increases the risk of catching deep-sea sharks as bycatch, Karnad points out.

While the scheme aims at doubling exports to
1,000,000 crores, which primarily, can only be achieved via aquaculture, it fails to address several existing issues. Karnad explains that the European Union and the United States, the largest markets for Indian marine exports, often reject major consignments blaming the use of antibiotics - commonly used in aquaculture farms. Had the scheme focused on implementing measures to educate and train fish farmers, and increase the number of testing facilities at the farms to ensure quality, which is a big investment the country may not be ready to make, the mariculture sector might have been able to meet the ever-increasing demand for quality seafood.

Even the promise of employment (PMMSY has pledged to employ 55,00,000 people) is perfunctory, considering it doesn’t account for all those who have lost their jobs during this period. Similarly, while funds under PMMSY are to be used to help fishermen when fishing is banned (from June 1 to July 31) and aims to provide personal and boat insurance, with no timeline mentioned, it is hard to tell when this will turn into cash-in-hand for fisherfolk. Besides, this also warrants a mild chance for all to avail of the relief, since many do not possess or have access to Aadhaar-linked bank accounts. What small-scale fisherfolk need instead, is access to ready capital, institutional credit, credit guarantee and insurance, all of which should have been allocated to registered societies or cooperatives such as those for agricultural farmers’ instead of individual accounts says Karnad.

Image: Shutterstock | In frame: Local fisherwoman drying fish under the sun

Additionally, the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers estimates that about half of all small-scale fish workers account for fisherwomen. The PMMSY should’ve ideally taken measures to allow fisherwomen, whose livelihoods depend on daily catch and sale, entry into periodic markets (open only for a few hours) and provide them with personal protection equipment such as masks and gloves, and social distancing measures. 

Had the PMMSY’s focus been on the adoption of technology, empowering our fisherfolk at the grassroots level by educating them about responsible and sustainable fishing
, improving hygienic handling practices onboard, at harbours and landing centres or simply arming them with entrepreneurial skills by making them aware of digital avenues, like online marketplaces, it could have uplifted the troubled community. 
In frame: Ganesh Nakhawa with his daily catch (Baramundi fish) for BluCatch

What’s needed immediately, is the permission for our fisherfolk to access the coast,  pause on the privatisation of shores, focusing on the development of infrastructural facilities and controlling pollution and other industrial activities, like hot water discharge from thermal power plants, industrial effluents, sewage from major urban centres and coastal over-development that destruct breeding grounds such as, mangroves and the ecosystem, by and large.

To that end, concerted efforts towards building a direct-to-consumer model (where fishermen are dealing with consumers directly) such as Nakhawa’s BluCatch and Kadavil and Mathew Joseph’s FreshtoHome, diverting attention from popular species such as pomfret, 
rawas and surmai towards native species and starting a conversation around ethical consumption would be more helpful, and redirect the shift a demand-driven market to a supply-driven one, Nakhawa asserts.

Today, the Indian docks stands still, stripped off its characteristic hustle-and-bustle, which is symbolic of the deep-rooted infirmities plaguing an industry that despite being valued at ₹1,233 billion (2019) is struggling to stay afloat. Can a half-hearted government scheme and community initiatives, such as those spearheaded by Nakhawa, Gangal and Karnad – without solid financial and infrastructural backing – be enough to breathe life into Indian fisheries? Time could tell, but the question is: Do we have enough time?

With inputs from Annabelle D'Costa 
Lead image: Shutterstock 


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