INDIA: Deep Distrust

Sunday 19 October 2014

Date: 16 October 2014

Source: Frontline

Type: News

Keywords: Fisherfolk

Fishermen’s associations protest against an expert committee’s recommendation for a revision of the guidelines for deep-sea fishing in the Exclusive Economic Zone, saying it is “part of a conspiracy to sell India’s fisheries resources to big foreign and domestic companies”. By R. KRISHNAKUMAR in Thiruvananthapuram

ORGANISATIONS of fishermen, including those of deep-sea artisanal fisherfolk in several coastal States, are protesting against the recommendations of an expert committee that reviewed India’s marine fishing policy and the existing guidelines for deep-sea fishing in the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

The seven-member committee headed by Dr B. Meenakumari, Deputy Director General (Fisheries), Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), was appointed soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an appeal for a “Blue Revolution” at his Foundation Day address at the Council in July.

The committee’s report, which was submitted in August, is yet to be approved by the Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries of the Ministry of Agriculture. However, fishermen’s organisations are planning a countrywide agitation against the recommendations, which they claim are “part of a conspiracy to sell India’s fisheries resources to big foreign and domestic companies”, and are “formulated without taking into account the views of the stakeholders in the marine fishing sector”.

The committee has, however, said that production in India from the near-shore waters has plateaued and that there is very little scope for increasing production in waters up to a depth of 200 metres. But waters beyond a depth of 500 m are not optimally exploited, and there is considerable scope of expansion in this zone, mainly for tuna and tuna-like species, which are in demand in the international market.

One of the most controversial recommendations is the creation of a buffer zone between the near-shore and offshore regions (waters between 200 m and 500 m in depth) along the coast and to regulate fishing there “in order to augment resources in the near-shore areas as well as the deep-sea regions in the EEZ”.

Another is to throw open off-shore regions for fishing by foreign and joint venture companies (a suggestion that was rejected by an expert committee in 1996) until the domestic fishers acquired the capability and techniques for effective deep-sea fishing.

A third contentious proposal is to allow tuna fishing by deep-sea vessels even during the period of uniform ban on fishing implemented by the Government of India every year “as this ban period does not coincide with the spawning seasons of tuna species such as yellow fin and big eye tuna”, which are high-value products in the international market.

India’s fishing sector is known to be beset with problems of excess capitalisation, excess capacity, ever-increasing operational expenses and decreasing catch rates. According to many accounts, resources in near-shore waters are already over-exploited and, therefore, for some time now, traditional fishermen and small motorised fishing craft in the 10 coastal States have been using the waters between 200 m and 500 m depth as their fishing grounds.

The committee says that exploitation of resources in waters between 200 m and 500 m “is now beginning, as small fishing boats [mainly measuring between 15 m and 20 m] are targeting the resources in this area”. The report recommends that “this depth zone may largely be kept as a buffer zone to augment the resources in both near-shore waters as well as offshore areas. Subsequently, this zone could also be utilised to diversify the existing fishing fleet for targeting resources such as squids and reducing pressure on near-shore waters in the future.”

The suggestion for creating a buffer zone in the name of “augmenting resources in the near-shore and off-shore regions” is seen with suspicion by the protesters. They describe it as “a ploy to remove traditional fisherfolk and small motorised boats from the fishing grounds outside India’s territorial waters [12 nautical miles or 22 kilometres]” and, at the same time, encourage more deep-sea foreign or joint venture fishing vessels to exploit the lucrative resources beyond a depth of 500 m. The committee has said that “waters beyond 500-metre depth are not optimally exploited and there is considerable scope for expansion in this zone, mainly for tuna and tuna-like species”. It has, therefore, recommended the introduction of “resource-specific fishing vessels” in this area.

“Based on the resource potential of tuna and tuna-like resources and other commercial species such as squids, it is recommended that a fleet size of 1,178 DSFVs [deep-sea fishing vessels] may be considered for deployment in the Indian EEZ,” the report says. This means the introduction of 270 vessels (240 tuna long liners, 15 purse seiners and 15 squid jiggers), in addition to the existing deep-sea vessels in the sector.

According to the report, tuna and tuna-like resources in the Indian EEZ are valued at approximately Rs.3,000 crore ($500 million). “In the absence of the Indian fleet unable to harvest this resource, the migratory stocks of tuna and tuna-like species are being caught by the fishing fleet of the neighbouring tuna fishing nations such as the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Indonesia. This, in other words, could be termed as a net loss of revenue to the Indian fisheries sector.”

In this context, the report says, “the industry has requested a review of this ban period for the DSFVs and suggested that such vessels may be exempted from the purview of the ban.”

According to the committee, India does not have adequate expertise or resources to exploit waters beyond 500 m and, therefore, may have to go in for “technology transfer through acquisition of foreign fishing vessels and, or, joint ventures/leasing” until domestic capacity is developed fully.

But the Kerala Fisheries Coordination Committee (KFCC), an umbrella body of nearly a dozen fishermen’s organisations, said the expert committee’s inferences were far removed from facts. Representatives of the KFCC said the committee had proposed such a view without understanding the current reality of offshore fishing in the 10 coastal States. Incidentally, Kerala has the largest fish landings in the country.

“Waters with a depth of between 200 metres and 500 metres are now the regular fishing grounds of the traditional fishermen and motorised small boats, especially from Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Gujarat,” said D. Sanjeeva Ghosh, fisheries expert and former Additional Director, State Fisheries Department.

In a lead article in Waves, a fortnightly journal published by the Kerala Swatantra Matsyatozhilali Federation (the organisation that led the famous agitation in the late 1980s for a trawling ban during the monsoon (spawning) season), he wrote:

“Those who fish beyond the territorial waters today are the traditional fishermen and small motorised vessels. The committee says such fishing should be controlled immediately. It also says that comprehensive legislation should be introduced for the regulation of the Indian fishing fleet in the EEZ. But should we not then control both the locals and the foreigners who indulge in unauthorised fishing?” At a seminar organised in Thiruvananthapuram as a prelude to the launch of a countrywide agitation, representatives of fishermen’s and boat operators’ organisations were critical of the committee’s observation that there was a lack of local expertise to exploit waters beyond a depth of 500 m. They felt the suggestion to allow deep-sea fishing during the monsoon trawling ban period was made without considering “the fact that the Central government’s definition of deep sea is between 22 km and 370 km”.

The committee’s report says that “in view of the developments in exploitation of the resources in waters beyond 12 nautical miles, there is an urgent need to enact a comprehensive legislation for the regulation of the Indian fishing fleet in the EEZ.”

But the protesters say that such suggestions should be read together with the proposals for “reconsideration and relaxation” of the stringent conditions imposed by the Home Ministry for engaging foreign crew in deep-sea vessels, such as the fixing of their minimum salary at $25,000 a year, the norm of a fixed percentage of foreign crew on board deep-sea fishing vessels, the phasing out norms of these vessels and the long process involved in the grant of security clearance to the foreign crew.

The committee’s terms of reference had included “examination of the status of compliance” of the requirements of management and regulation of marine fisheries as per regional and international agreements and regulations. But the report made only perfunctory comments about this important issue, even as it made far-reaching suggestions regarding the revision of the existing guidelines for deep-sea fishing in the EEZ.

The result, according to representatives of the Association of Deep Sea Going Artisanal Fishermen. is that “foreign deep-sea vessels can now fish any species anywhere in India, while more and more restrictions are being imposed on local fishermen”.

“Could the proposed Blue Revolution be at the cost of the livelihood of tens of thousands of Indian fishermen and their families?” asks T. Peter, secretary of the National Fishworkers’ Forum.

See online : Frontline

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