The Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) headquartered in Kochi is seeking its place in the sun betting on its efforts to develop a chlorophyll-based, remote-sensing-assisted fisheries forecasting system, currently the holy grail of marine fisheries research.

“This is CMFRI’s flagship project in the 12th Plan period,” said the director of the institute, G. Syda Rao. CMFRI, under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), has been in the vanguard of marine fisheries research in the country. It ventured into measuring chlorophyll in Indian seas way back in the 1970s and 1980s using remote sensing technology.

Chlorophyll is the basic food for all sea animals. The presence of large amounts of chlorophyll in the water could be used as an indicator of areas of fish stock congregations and migration. Every 1.2 gram of chlorophyll is equivalent to roughly 100 kg of fish in 18 months, says Dr. Rao putting things in layman’s language, but masking the enormity of the task of evolving an accurate system that can predict fish availability. The project’s success will evolve into a whole package of recommendations for fisheries management, which is at the core of CMFRI mandate.

From fleet management to marketing, chlorophyll-based, fisheries forecasting system promises to be a game-changer. “Nobody has done it before. But we will do it,” says Dr. Rao.

According to Dr. Rao, India’s premier marine research institute has grown into world’s largest fisheries research facility with ten regional centres, fifteen field offices and research divisions.

The institute was established in 1947 with a mandate to provide data on Indian marine fisheries resources and evolve means to sustain them. Data from CMFRI on marine fish landings in the country is a priceless bank of information on which government of India and Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) rely.

Moreover, he says, “We have proved that the Indian system of managing resources is better than in Europe”. Indian sea fish landings have been growing but in Europe it has constantly been in crisis.

“While Europe is worried about sustainability and preventing the collapse of marine fisheries, India is targeting a 10-million-tonne turnover by 2050,” says Dr. Rao. How is this possible, he asks, focusing on problems across the world amid threat from global warming and environmental degradation.

Mariculture holds the key, says Dr. Rao, who feels that Indian researchers have just set out on the journey to increase sea fish production using artificial reefs and through open sea cage farming. Mariculture involves the cultivation of marine organisms for food and other products in an enclosed section of the ocean.

Open sea cage farming has the potential to revolutionise fishing economies, says Dr. Rao pointing to the success of the method introduced by CMFRI among tribal people in Gujarat. Poorest of the tribal families in the State earn between Rs. 15,000 and Rs. 20,000 a month by farming highly priced varieties of sea fish.

Mullets, red snappers, pomphrets and seer fish are high-value items that account for just a small portion of the total fish landings of 3.94 million tonnes (in 2012) in the country. The share of high-value fish in fish landings in the country can be increased through cage farming, which depends on the success in collecting seeds and building brood banks. “We have succeeded in building a bank for kobia, groupers and red snappers,” says Dr. Rao.

However, a question being raised is whether Indian marine fisheries research is concentrating too much on mariculture when wild catch continues to dominate the fish landing scene in the country. N.G.K. Pillai, who worked with CMFRI for more than 30 years and retired as its director in-charge in 2010, feels that sufficient attention should still be paid to capture fisheries which, he feels, will dominate the fish landing scene over the next ten to fifteen years. (see interview).

Dr. Rao holds forth on why CMFRI can lead the country’s charge towards a sustainable and profitable marine fisheries system, ensuring means of livelihood to the fishing community.

The artificial reefs, which CMFRI helped establish along the Indian coast, are providing nursery protection to fish stocks. Nobody has done this in the world before, claims Dr. Rao. He says that artificial reefs have been established at 50 spots along the Tamil Nadu coast. Fishermen are happy with the results and CMFRI hopes to establish more such reefs over the next 10 years.

CMFRI is also engaged in developing a GIS-based marine fisheries information system, to help map fish availability, which will help locate brooders, conserve juveniles and issue advice on fishing activities.

Though the institute has annual budget support of around Rs. 100 crore, it needs more scientists. It has 125 to 130 researchers whereas it needs 500. These scientists need international exposure too, to build their confidence as they venture out into new areas like climate studies, where CMFRI has taken the lead with collaborative efforts with institutes in the G8 countries.

Despite its achievements, Dr. Rao feels that there is a gap in reaching out to the people. He feels the state governments must be more proactive so that new enterprises based on the findings of the institute can be generated.

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