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How Sustainable Is The Fishing Industry In India?

The fishing industry in India employs over 14 million people, according to a survey conducted by Food and Agriculture Organization department of the United Nations

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The fishing industry in India employs over 14 million people, according to a survey conducted by Food and Agriculture Organization department of the United Nations.

India constitutes to about 6.3 per cent of the global fish production. However, as one of the sustainable development goals is to aim for a better aquatic balance, India has a long way to go to become a country which uses 100 per cent sustainable fishing practices.

As a result of overfishing and unsustainable fishing practices such as trawling (that damage aquatic life to a large extent), the aquatic ecosystem and the fishing communities (specifically in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu) have suffered for a long time.

With a highly unregulated and informal supply chain, the fishery laws are left up to the communities to interpret without any enforcement. A law under India’s Marine Fishing Regulation Act orders “prohibition on certain fishing gear, regulation on mesh size, establishment of closed season and areas, demarcation of zones for no trawling, in addition to other measures such as the use of turtle excluder devices and designation of no fishing areas”, most of which are highly unregulated.

Supply and demand

When it comes to demand, there is no awareness among consumers on what method of fishing is to be used. A sudden shift in demand towards sustainable fishing might also impact the lower-rung fishing communities who might not have the required resources to shift to sustainable practices.

Concerns about overfishing may not bother them much, given how this is the classic scenario of the tragedy of commons. In supermarkets too, where upper class citizens procure the catch, the labelling does not provide enough information regarding the sourcing of the fish. With negligible earnings, a majority of the fishing community suffers from debt-ridden issues, depleting fish stocks and poverty, while the larger fisheries exploit the aquatic life.

Sustainable fishing and MSC certification

Sustainable fishing implies ensuring sustainable fish stocks, minimizing environmental impact by maintaining a structure, productivity, function and diversity of the aquatic ecosystem and effective fisheries management which is responsive to changing circumstances. It also implies combating illegal fishing and cutting out destructive fishing practices.

All hope is not lost, as some fishing communities, such as Indian clam fishery in the Ashtamudi estuary in Kerala, have achieved the Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC) ‘Blue Label Certification’, which certifies that their fishery uses sustainable methods of fishing.

The methods of conservation used are providing a steady source of income for the fishermen, where one boat brings about 200kgs of fish a day, generating an income of Rs.1,500 per day. Some methods of sustainable fishing followed restrict fishing, by banning fishing activities from December to February, the breeding season for clams (a type of shell fish), imposing mesh size restrictions for nets of 30mm, along with a minimum export size of 1400 clams/kg, and a prohibition on mechanical clam fishing.

After facing declining stocks, the collaboration between MSC, Ashtamudi fishing community, World Wildlife Fund, scientists from the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute and the Department of Fisheries, Kerala, has successfully helped in replenishing stocks thus maintaining an aquatic balance, resulting in a steady catch of 10,000 tonne annually.

The sustainable methods of fishing used by the Ashtamudi community resulted in the MSC certification, the first such certification in India, and third in Asia. As David Agnew, MSC standards director, said, “It will be an important addition to the growing number of developing world fisheries that are demonstrating their sustainability through MSC’s certification programme.”

The MSC certification program not only opens up new avenues of markets, but leads to conservation, sustainability of aquatic life, whilst providing greater economic returns.

The Sindhudurg community in Maharashtra too is moving towards sustainable fishing practices, where 300 trawlers have adopted square mesh nets due to which there is lesser by-catch (which results in incidental catch of non-target species) and the aquatic life is preserved. However they still have yet to obtain an MSC certification, which is compliant to internationally recognized standards on sustainable fishing and sea-food traceability.

Through research of catch records and stock surveys, fisheries can respond to depleting fish stocks by reducing fishing activities. The environmental impact can be minimized by reducing by-catch through modification of fishing techniques like the Sindhudurg community in Maharashtra adopting square mesh nets.

The end of the line

With fishing contributing to 10% of total exports from India, and almost 20% of agricultural exports, there is still a long way to go for India to completely adopt sustainable fishing practices and obtain more MSC certifications for the country.

The onus is not only on the supply side, but also demand, where the consumers too should be accountable for the fish they purchase and know how it is sourced.

Information dissemination and knowledge transfer is key to move towards a sustainable fishing industry and for conservation of aquatic life. Otherwise a ‘tragedy of the commons’ is due if efforts are not made towards sustainability.

Till then, be careful what you ‘fish’ for.


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