- A central government committee is working on regulating trawlers that go out to sea and land up bringing back excess catch and damaging the ocean bed.
- Trawlers are medium-sized ships with nets that sweep the ocean floors, scraping it off en masse with all life forms. Adding to this is the fine mesh size of the nets that do not let juveniles and sometimes even eggs and larvae escape.
- By June this year, the committee will recommend by how much the fleet size should be reduced by. Conservationists however, suggest abolishing bottom trawling completely.
India will make its first serious attempt to regulate fishing vessels that go out to the sea – for which bureaucratic wheels have just begun to turn.
A central government committee was formed and met last week (on January 18) with a simple yet difficult agenda – how to reduce India’s trawling fleet, and by how much.
“It was agreed that there is a need to reduce the number of trawlers for two main reasons. One that there is excess catch and two to reduce the damage on the ocean bed and to the ecology that bottom trawlers cause,” said director of the Bay of Bengal Programme Inter-Governmental Organisation, Yugraj Yadava, who was part of the meeting. The meeting saw representatives of the fisheries departments from Gujarat, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, as well as officials from Fishery Survey of India and the National Fisheries Development Board.
Trawlers are medium-sized ships with nets that sweep the ocean floors, scraping it off en masse with all life forms. Adding to this is the fine mesh size of the nets that do not let juveniles and sometimes even eggs and larvae escape. Several conservationists and activists have called for a complete ban on trawl nets as they indiscriminately destroy all forms.
“As per the 2010 Census Report of the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, there are about 72,559 mechanised fishing boats across the country, of which trawlers comprise 35,228 (49 percent). This number needs to come down as early as possible. By how much will have to be discussed amongst various stakeholders and be arrived at,” said Yadava.
The committee has been constituted by the Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairying & Fisheries and the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare and has members from the state fisheries department from different coastal states. By June 30 this year, the committee will have to submit a report on by how much the fleet size should be reduced by.
“We also discussed on the possibility of not allowing trawlers within 12 nautical miles of the coast. Various stakeholders will be taking this discussion forward,” said Yadava. Waters near the coast are breeding grounds for several species and serve as homes to juveniles.
Once this number is decided, and the report of the committee accepted by the government, the Department of Fisheries of the respective coastal states/union territories will be asked to stop new registrations and licensing of trawl boats and also weed out the ones which are not in use any longer.
“India is amongst the biggest producers of fish in the world and yet we don’t have sound mechanisms to manage destructive gear like trawlers. If the committee agrees, this would be the first attempt to do so,” said Yadava. In his estimates, at least 30 percent of existing trawlers need to be removed if the yields were to stay within the maximum sustainable yields (MSY). “This will take between five and seven years,” he said.
Maximum sustainable yield is the amount of fish the country can catch to ensure the fish population has time to breed and recover. Currently, the country’s maximum sustainable yield is 4.41 million metric tonnes of fish per year while the actual yield in 2017-18 has been estimated at 3.68 million metric tonnes per year.
“However, we cannot wait till we reach this limit. We also need to keep in mind that around 15 percent of the catch is wasted in post-harvest losses and also a certain percentage goes unaccounted as fishermen consume it themselves,” said Yadava.
“More than just the yield, it is also quality and the type of fish that are being caught. Populations of several species are on the decline due to excessive fishing,” he said, adding that there are no plans at the moment to enforce targeted fishing practices.
Need for more stringent rules say experts
Activists and experts working towards improving marine ecology are taking the new plans with a pinch of salt. “Given that the Fisheries Department’s main agenda appears to be to increase fish catch year on year, I wonder if there will be any real will to reduce the fleet size?” questions wildlife and conservation filmmaker, Shekar Dattatri, who is a former member of the National Board for Wildlife.
“While it is not too late for marine ecology to recover from decades of exploitative fishing, it is too late to talk about half-measures such as merely reducing the number of trawlers. Ideally, bottom trawling, which is among the most destructive fishing practices, should be abolished altogether,” added Dattatri.
Along the Chennai coast, volunteers of the Student Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN) have set up a hatchery and are now beginning their nightly walks looking for olive ridley turtle nests. Since the nesting season started in the last week of December, they have found 50 dead turtles washed ashore along a 13-km stretch.
“Trawlers are the main reason for turtle mortalities. They are either caught in nets and drown or get hit by propellers. Both cause fatalities,” said a volunteer with SSTCN, M.A. Aravind.
Olive ridleys are protected under the Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act – the highest status in Indian law, making them equivalent to tigers. In 2015, the Madras high court took notice of the issue and directed the state government to come out with a plan to regulate exploitative fishing in the state.
Fishers in Tamil Nadu, surprisingly, seem open to the move and say they had it coming for a long time. “We know that this is not sustainable fishing. Our catch has come down and we know it is dangerous for marine life. Even if we want to change our ways, trawl boat owners do not want to. They cannot think beyond their daily earnings,” said G. Vincent, a member of North Chennai Fishermen’s Welfare Association.
Officials from the state fisheries department say that at least in Tamil Nadu, things have begun to change — primarily because of the ongoing tussle with Sri Lanka. The island nation has banned all kinds of trawling and Indian fishers regularly get arrested and have their boats seized for crossing the border.
“As a result, many fishermen are willing to make the change and use a more sustainable method of fishing,” said a senior official from the fisheries department, adding that non-selective and destructive fishing needs to come to a stop.
“The state government [is] also giving several incentives for them to convert. Of the 3,500 trawlers in Tamil Nadu, we have schemes to convert at least 2,000 of them to deep sea boats, which have bigger mesh size and will not harm breeding and the juveniles in near shore waters,” he added.