- A significant gap persists between scientific knowledge and fisheries policies in India, finds a study.
- Fisheries policies related to artisanal fishing zones, mesh sizes and the legality of practices such as bull trawling vary among the five west coast states.
- India’s marine fishing sector has experienced a six-fold increase over the past seven to eight decades and is now primarily mechanised. Unchecked expansion has led Indian fisheries toward an unsustainable path, claims the study.
Mesh sizes for the cod end of trawl nets, where captured fish are collected, play a crucial role in preventing overfishing of small-sized fishes. Each state on the western coast of India has mandated a minimum mesh size through respective Marine Fisheries Regulation Acts (MFRAs). However, significant variations persist from state to state, highlighting inconsistencies in policy, notes a recent paper.
Gujarat and Kerala adhere to 40 millimetres (mm) and 35 mm of mesh size, respectively, while Karnataka recently increased its minimum allowable mesh size from 20 mm to 35 mm. Goa maintains a minimum mesh size recommendation of 24 mm. Maharashtra, specifically the Ratnagiri district, benefits from special concessions, allowing a minimum mesh size of 25 mm. These variations in regulations persist despite scientific recommendations for a minimum mesh size of at least 35 mm to prevent overfishing and the risk of fish stock depletion.
The paper, published in Marine Policy in October 2023, explores the science-policy interface of coastal capture fisheries and finds a “weak and inconsistent relationship between policy and biology in Indian fisheries.” The paper covers five states on the west coast of India: Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka and Kerala. These states share similar natural conditions regarding marine life, environment and oceans.
Based on a detailed analysis of available literature, the research findings indicate a nuanced relationship between fisheries policy and fisheries sciences in India. The policy has extensively utilised techno-scientific advancements to broaden the scope of stock exploitation, says the paper. However, it has been sluggish in engaging with evidence of fisheries decline in scientific research, the paper concludes.
Mayuresh Gangal, a research scholar at Nature Conservation Foundation and one of the authors of the paper, says, “The fisheries policies in India are largely driven by a mandate of “augmenting production.” This mandate greatly influences the way policy evolves.”
Head of the Aquatic Biology and Fisheries department at the University of Kerala, A. Bijukumar, broadly agrees with the paper’s conclusions. When considering the sustainability of marine fisheries in India, over capacity of fishing vessels, without better realisation of the stocks of all commercially exploited species, and the resultant overfishing stands out as a significant problem. For instance, the various expert committees proposed a limit of 1500 to 2000 trawlers in Kerala, but the actual number is over double the proposal, indicating a lack of consideration for scientific knowledge. Another issue concerns the inconsistency in mesh size standards, with each state having its own regulations. Additionally, the enforcement of minimum catch sizes is only observed in Kerala, but the absence of monitoring mechanisms poses a challenge in ensuring compliance, he says while talking to Mongabay India.
Variation at the state level
The researchers reviewed national fisheries policies in the archive and relevant published literature, with a focus on policies associated with fish harvest, as these were more likely to be directly informed by biological principles. The researchers delved into four main categories of policy recommendations linked to fish biology and generally crafted to ensure the long-term sustainability of the harvest. These categories include protecting critical periods such as breeding and spawning times, implementing harvests based on size or age, imposing species- or habitat-specific restrictions and establishing overarching catch limits.
The paper found significant policy disparities among the five states along the western coast. In Maharashtra and Kerala, exclusive zones for artisanal fishing are delineated according to depth, whereas in Gujarat, Goa and Karnataka, the demarcation is based on the distance from the shore. The harmful practice of bull trawling is prohibited in Goa and Maharashtra but remains lawful in the neighbouring state of Gujarat. Furthermore, there is a substantial variation in the minimum allowable mesh sizes for trawlers among these states.
The states have respective policies that impose restrictions based on the size of the catch, setting a minimum legal size (MLS) for different species. Kerala, Karnataka and Goa have MLS for 44, 19 and 20 species, respectively. In Kerala, catching any individual below the MLS is prohibited, while Goa and Karnataka consider a violation of MLS only if more than 50% of the catch of a specific species is below the set size. In contrast, Gujarat and Maharashtra have not designated an MLS for any species.
To deal with emerging conflicts between the traditional, mechanised and deep-sea fishing sectors, the central government prepared a model Marine Fisheries Regulation Act (MFRA), in 1979, as a common template for states to implement as fisheries regulation falls under the jurisdiction of states according to the Seventh Schedule of the Indian Constitution. Fishing activities beyond state territorial waters are under the control of the union government. The management, development and regulation of maritime resources are responsibilities shared by both the state and central governments. States are in charge within their territorial waters, extending up to 12 nautical miles (22 km) from the coast. Beyond this, the union government takes over managing fisheries in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which spans from 12 to 200 nautical miles (370 km) offshore.
However, there is no border within the state’s water and one state’s policies have a certain impact in terms of depleting fishing stocks or conflict, on others, says A. Bijukumar.
Gangal also says that conflict among states due to varying policies at the state level is not uncommon. As of now, states do not coordinate with each other when it comes to fisheries policies and as a result, different states have different policies. The underlying assumption of such management is that the fish populations are static and distributed according to these political boundaries. This assumption can cause a huge mismatch between management rationale and biological realities. Neighbouring states may share the same population of fish while having contrasting harvest policies, he adds.
Though state policies are based on the model MFRA formulated by the central government, this variation still exists. Experts say that the model MFRA serves just as a guideline or skeleton. What regulations a state should adopt and in what form is largely left to individual states.
At the local level, every state has a different set of priorities. This includes its mandates, which are driven by the existing political situation, interests of different stakeholders and perhaps, the understanding of fisheries and fish biology of individuals in decision-making positions, experts echoed.
A. Bijukumar also highlights one scientific recommendation to limit overfishing, i.e., fishing holidays and catch quota and bycatch regulation for commercial trawlers. On the west coast, fishing holidays are scheduled during the monsoon season, while on the east coast, they align with the pre-monsoon season, with slight variations at the state level. However, he points out that these holidays are influenced by political pressure rather than a critical role played by science. He emphasises that biological knowledge is not adequately guiding policymaking in this context.
India’s marine fishing resources are spread along a vast coastline of about 8,118 kms, including an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) covering 2.02 million square kms and a continental shelf area of 0.53 million square kms. The fisheries sector gradually transformed from a traditional activity to a highly mechanised-motorised commercial enterprise. Though nearly 98% of the fish caught in India come from larger, mechanised operations, small-scale fishermen dominate the community. The marine fishing sector is crucial for the coastal economy, providing income, jobs and food security for approximately 3.52 million people in eight coastal states and two union territories. A 2022 report from ICAR-Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute highlights this significant gap between dependence of large scale fishers and total catch by mechanised operation, raising concerns about the livelihood security of small-scale fishers.
Since Independence in 1947, the reported catch in Indian marine fisheries has surged sixfold, says the paper. However, it argues that the relentless pursuit of unchecked expansion has led Indian fisheries toward an unsustainable path. Even while admitting overcapacity, policies continue to promote expansion, it says.
According to Mayuresh Gangal, “Current Indian policy conceives fish as an inert natural resource, where the management challenge is exploration and efficient extraction. To sustainably serve the goals of food security, employment and growth, fisheries require a profound imaginational shift to recognise fish as living entities, with populations that display behaviours, community dynamics and ecological functions.”
Banner image: A fisher throwing the net in the Arabian sea. India’s marine fishing sector has experienced a six-fold increase over the past seven to eight decades and is now primarily mechanised. Photo by Dilip V. Nerlikar/Wikimedia Commons.